New board asks for public input on St. Louis schools

Friday, June 15, 2007 | 2:00 p.m. CDT; updated 5:06 a.m. CDT, Thursday, July 10, 2008

ST. LOUIS — Members of the state-appointed board now overseeing St. Louis schools used their first meeting today to send a message to the community — we need your help.

Amid only mild protests and a few catcalls, the board met for about 25 minutes at the St. Louis Science Center, with all three members pledging to seek input from residents as they move forward in trying to improve the state’s largest school district.

“We’re in uncharted waters on a lot of things,” said Rick Sullivan, a homebuilder appointed by Gov. Matt Blunt to lead the transitional board. He said his first priority is “listening, hearing what the community has to say about this district.”

Toward that goal, Sullivan announced a public hearing for 5:30 p.m. Tuesday, also at the Science Center, in which residents can meet with the board and express their concerns.

Members Richard Gaines and Melanie Adams also cited a need for input from students, teachers, residents and members of the elected school board that still remains, though it now has no power. Adams cited a need for the board to set specific, measurable goals.

Gaines, an insurance broker who served on the school board from 1983 to 1989, including a stint as president, called the transitional board’s task “an onerous responsibility that I don’t take lightly.” He recognized the awkwardness of the situation in which a board not elected by the city’s residents is now running the district.

“It brings a great deal of discomfort to me and other people in this city,” Gaines said.

That discomfort was barely evident at the meeting. Two protesters stood outside the Science Center holding signs accusing the state’s Republican leadership of orchestrating the takeover. A few times during the brief meeting, opponents offered muted catcalls or laughs to comments from members.

Nick Clement, one of the two protesters outside the building, said the takeover was unnecessary despite the district’s low test scores and overall poor academic performance.

“Test scores are not good in some other districts but they’re not being taken over,” Clement said.

If anything, the new board showed it won’t be a rubber-stamp operation. Its first vote was a split decision. Sullivan made a motion to retain an attorney for 120 days to deal with litigation connected to the changeover. But Gaines, citing a potential conflict because the lawyer had previously handled a case for the state, said he would not support the motion. Adams broke the tie, siding with Sullivan.

After the meeting, Katha McKinney, an in-school suspension monitor at Gateway Prep Junior High, urged Gaines to support the teachers union.

“We support our teachers because we are dedicated educators,” she told him. “That’s what we do. We’re here to educate.”

The State Board of Education voted in March to strip the district of accreditation, saying it came up short on academic and financial standards.

Some members of the elected school board opposed the state takeover, but a judge late Thursday allowed it to move forward.

The takeover called for one appointee each from Blunt, St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay and St. Louis aldermanic president Lewis Reed. Slay appointed Adams, who was the first executive director of Teach for America when it came to St. Louis and now is a managing director for the Missouri Historical Society. Lewis appointed Gaines.

Sullivan praised the work of superintendent Diana Bourisaw and said the board has no intention of removing her.

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