St. Louis school board perseveres despite state takeover

Saturday, July 12, 2014 | 4:40 p.m. CDT
In this June 10 photo, a lone attendee sits in otherwise empty seats at the start of a meeting of the St. Louis Board of Education in St. Louis. The members of the elected board haven’t had much to do since state officials displaced the body and replaced it with an appointed panel that oversees the unaccredited district.

ST. LOUIS — Life can get pretty lonely on the St. Louis Board of Education, an elected body with virtually no power after the state took over the beleaguered city public school system seven years ago.

A three-member panel of political appointees known as the Special Administrative Board oversees school finances and sets education policy. But the seven-member school board continues to meet regularly — if not largely in anonymity— keeping close tabs on St. Louis Public Schools while regularly voicing its opposition to policies over which it has no control.

"It's an act of open defiance," said Susan Turk, a former school parent and one of the few regular attendees at the elected board's monthly meetings. "They represent the will of the people."

The elected board's continued existence stems from an unusual provision in state law that directs its members to audit and monitor the state-appointed board — but provides the elected board no resources, financial or otherwise, to do so.

Those limitations prompted the board to ask State Auditor Tom Schweich to formally scrutinize the city school system's performance. Among the findings of the September 2013 audit was the administrative board's failure to publicly report decisions from closed meetings as Missouri law requires, including the sale of school buildings.

The state audit "made the Special Administrative Board take notice," said David Jackson, president of the elected board. "They started off wanting nothing to do with the elected Board of Education."

Jackson said the once-cool relationship between the dueling school boards has since thawed. He credits both Rick Sullivan, a retired construction company executive who is the administrative board's CEO, and Superintendent Kelvin Adams, hired in 2008 to turn the district around after it lost accreditation the previous year.

The two board leaders met recently to discuss the system's possible return to local control in June 2016. The district received provisional accreditation in September 2012 after showing progress on state financial standards, though its overall academic performance remains shaky. The administrative board's oversight has twice been extended, first in 2011 and most recently in April of this year.

"I have repeatedly said to David and the elected board that when the day comes that the term of the Special Administrative Board comes to an end, I will do everything and anything I can to make the transition smooth," Sullivan said.

In addition to Sullivan, who was appointed by former Gov. Matt Blunt, the administrative board consists of Melanie Adams, who was appointed by Mayor Francis Slay; and former elected board president Richard Gaines, who was appointed by Lewis Reed, the president of the St. Louis Board of Aldermen.

While the elected board's relations with the administrative board have improved, its interactions with state education officials remain tense at best. The elected board sued the State Board of Education and the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education in an effort to block the state takeover, but the Missouri Supreme Court upheld that 2007 decision.

In January, the elected board passed a resolution of no confidence in state Education Commissioner Chris Nicastro, calling her a "serious impediment" to unaccredited school districts seeking to restore their status and asking Gov. Jay Nixon and the state Board of Education to appoint a new leader.

Nicastro remains in office. A spokeswoman said the education commissioner was on vacation last week and not available to discuss the elected board's role but provided a written statement affirming the state's recent decision to extend the administrative board's oversight for another two years.

In the meantime, the elected board perseveres, biding its time in hopes of a restoration of its relevance.

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