A Shrewdness of Apes

An Okie teacher banished to the Midwest. "Education is not the filling a bucket but the lighting of a fire."-- William Butler Yeats

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Daze of Our Lies: The St. Louis Public Schools' latest soap opera

So here's more information for those of you who were wondering how NOT to run a school district out in the Land Between the Coasts:

The firing of Creg Williams by the St. Louis Public Schools school board just keeps the entertainment value high-- if of course, you are someone who finds the failure to educate thousands of students funny. Some of us just get disgusted.

First, apparently Williams earned the enmity of current Board President Veronica O'Brien when he supported the incumbent board members in the last school board election. O'Brien is one of the challengers who was elected in their place. Quite interesting is the way that Ms. O'Brien spoke of Mr. Williams after she won election. As reported in the St. Louis paper here:
Tension over Williams' stance surfaced two days after the election, when board member - and soon-to-be-named Board President Veronica O'Brien - provided a hint of what lay ahead.

"Everybody gets three strikes," she said. "And maybe he'll redeem himself. We're going to have to have somebody walk behind him so he gets trained."

Williams riposted a week later with an image from a Dave Matthews song:
"I am not a monkey on a string, and I am not a dog on a leash," he said. "I have a job to do and I'm going to do whatever I can to run this district as best I know how."

On Friday, the clash that started to build months ago came to a head. Four of the seven board members forced Williams' resignation.

Afterward, the district's attorney told the board not to discuss the circumstances that led to the resignation.

Two of Williams' supporters, Ron Jackson and Robert Archibald, say they have no problem obeying the order because they've yet to be informed why Williams was pushed out.

So what did Williams do or not do, exactly, which merited firing? There are several things mentioned: that he didn't involve teachers enough, that he didn't get class sizes down, that he didn't turn over financial information quickly enough as the board tried to prepare a (still unpassed) budget, which faces a deficit of many millions of dollars. (And, by the way, good luck on lowering class sizes in a district which already has dozens of unfilled teaching positions every year.) But apparently, another nail in the coffin was that neither he nor his assistants were from St. Louis:
Some critics also questioned Williams' commitment to St. Louis itself. Most of his top lieutenants came from other cities.

"The whole point seemed to be, if you were from St. Louis you weren't good enough to help the schools," [Teachers' union Pesident Mary] Armstrong said.

Well, let's see... Mr. Williams was hired as a result of a nationwide search. Generally, a nationwide search produces people who are, um, from all across the nation.

And frankly, until Diana Bourisaw, who replaced Williams under what seems to be fortuitous circumstances, took the job, a local candidate seemed highly unlikely. Given the fascinatingly bizarre events which seem to swirl around this school district, it seems one might need to go to Bora Bora to find someone unfamiliar enough with the turmoil to be willing to take the job.

Because here's the problem: several people are calling for the state of Missouri to take over the school district, and they believe they have a pretext: if Ms. Bourisaw, whom Ms. O'Brien referred to admiringly as a "pit bull," can't get the district ready to open by the planned starting date of August 28, the state could claim that the district is violating state law by not providing the minimum number of days of instruction:
The future of an already-troubled district propelled further into disarray by Friday's forced resignation of former Superintendent Creg Williams is far more uncertain.

By giving Bourisaw just six weeks to prepare for an academic year in which dramatic districtwide reforms are scheduled to kick in, the departure of Williams and top members of his staff could ironically result in the outcome the board majority hoped to avoid when it toppled the former superintendent: a state takeover of Missouri's largest school system.

The law allows the state to assume control of a district unable to keep classrooms open for a minimum of 174 days of instruction.

"I believe the law could be interpreted to say that if a district fails to open school, that could very well be grounds for a state takeover," state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education spokesman Jim Morris said Saturday. "If that is the case, I think it might be legitimate grounds for intervention."

And the possibility that the St. Louis schools may not open, Morris added, is a major source of apprehension at state school headquarters.

"Because there have been so many departures to the central office lately, volunteer and otherwise, we are concerned they won't have people in place to provide for an orderly opening of school."

School Board President Veronica O'Brien, who orchestrated what quickly became known as the "Friday night coup," said Bourisaw, the former Fox District superintendent, has been assembling a brain trust of local education leaders and business persons to ensure that the schools will open on time Aug. 28.

"Basically, she's bringing in a SWAT team," O'Brien said.

Board Vice President William Purdy acknowledged Bourisaw and her team face a steep challenge. He cited the restructuring of three high schools and four middle schools, continuing uncertainty about teaching assignments, the transfer of more than 600 Cleveland High School students to a new building and the addition of new principals at three high schools.

"I'm cautiously optimistic we can get our arms wrapped around these problems," he said. Four days prior to Williams' departure, Purdy had told a reporter he feared the opening of school would be a "complete disaster."

The public is worried, too, according to more than a dozen pastors who gathered to discuss Williams' ouster Saturday at Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church on Compton Avenue.

And at a hurriedly organized "gathering" Monday night, at which Ms. Bourisaw was introduced to the public by the four members who voted to hire her and fire Mr. Williams, several parents got into a shouting match with one of the board members.

Board President O'Brien claims that Missouri education officials have been in the loop all along:
In a week when rumors of St. Louis Schools Superintendent Creg Williams' potential ouster floated through the city, one agency besides the School Board knew exactly what was about to transpire.

The Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education was contacted by Board members Ron Jackson and Robert Archibald, who supported Williams.

State Education Commissioner Kent King also was kept abreast of developments by School Board President Veronica O'Brien, the key force behind Williams' ouster.

"The state knew this was going to happen," the board president said [Friday].

"I have been communicating with (King) through this whole process and so has (new interim Superintendent Diana Bourisaw). He has known just about every move that was taken and he knew it ahead of time."

But what King knew was about to happen, said education department spokesman Jim Morris, most definitely did not have the state's blessing.

"He (King) told me it was the wrong move at the wrong time for them," Morris said Saturday. "The district doesn't need any more instability and controversy at this juncture."

At a time when accusations and counter-accusations are flying around thicker than a biblical plague of locusts, this much is sure: for too long the students in St. Louis Public Schools have not been the primary concern of those who make decisions within the district. Ms. Bourisaw previously oversaw a racially homogeneous, outrider suburban school district with about 11,000 students. Given that the start of school is only six weeks away, and there are still teaching openings unfilled, schools with reorganizations barely started, and an anger level higher than is usual, she is going to have a tough row to hoe to get this district on its feet, and her every move will be even more scrutinized due to the manner in which she has obtained the superintendency. I really hope that no one wishes her failure, because, really, this is about far more than the success or failure of one superintendent or another.

It's the education of 35,000 students which matters.

Let me repeat that. It's the education of 35,000 students that matters!


At 7/18/06, 6:09 PM, Blogger ms-teacher said...

Take it from someone who knows, your school board is going to regret its actions if the state takes over. In my district (in California), we were taken over by the state two years ago. Our board has absolutely no power. Our union (of which I am an active member) has had to file grievance after grievance because the State Appointed Administrator top priority is to pay back the $60 million dollar bail out loan, union contract be damned.

At 7/18/06, 8:29 PM, Blogger "Ms. Cornelius" said...

It's not my school board, thank God. And I mean that!

I am merely outraged from afar and from friends of mine who actually work there.

The last thing St. Louis needs is to have the state control one more thing, since as a result of the Civil War -- yes, you heard that right-- the state already controls the St. Louis Police Department.

At 7/18/06, 10:01 PM, Blogger ms-teacher said...

sorry about the confusion. I had assumed (which shouldn't be done, I know!) that you worked in this school district.

Again, I apologize :)

At 7/18/06, 10:42 PM, Blogger "Ms. Cornelius" said...

Oh, no problem. But I imagine that if I did work in this district, I would be an incoherent mess needing early retirement by now.


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