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

Friday, June 15, 2007

The St. Louis Public Schools Board of Education bites the dust

The state's Special Administrative Board has now taken over operations of the St. Louis Public Schools.
Rick Sullivan, CEO of the Special Administrative Board, said Superintendent Diana Bourisaw will stay on —and the district's longtime law firm, Lashly and Baer, will be out.

Cole County Circuit Court Judge Richard Callahan late Thursday paved the way for the board to take office when he denied a bid by five St. Louis School Board members for a temporary restraining order to halt the state intervention.

Attorneys for the school board and the state Attorney General's Office will return to Callahan's court at an as yet undetermined date to present further arguments in the case. At the hearing, the school board will seek an injunction to permanently stop the transitional school district.

"We certainly haven't been thrown out of court yet, we just had a motion denied," said Johnny Richardson of Jefferson City, the board's attorney. "Regardless of what happened tonight, this is the first step in a long battle."

Jim Morris, a spokesman for the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, said Callahan's order supported the State Board of Education's decision to remove the district's accreditation and replace the elected school board with the new board.

"The court affirmed the standards and process that we used to evaluate the school district," Morris said. "We believe the data clearly show that the St. Louis Public Schools have been losing ground in academic performance. We also feel that state action was not only justified but necessary to get this school district back on track."

Lawyers for the school district again on Thursday said that chaos would accompany a state takeover. They attacked the laws that describe the state intervention as flawed and contradictory, introducing the possibility of a power struggle between the district's existing board and the new board.

But Paul Wilson, an assistant Missouri attorney general, told the judge that St. Louis schools had been warned in no uncertain terms about what it needed to do to avoid a state takeover.

Sullivan's view
In a wide-ranging interview before the denial of the restraining order, Sullivan on Thursday steered the focus to the future. He appealed to the community to join the new board in a regional effort to turn around a school district wracked by years of political turmoil, financial instability and, most importantly, failure in the classroom.

The new board plans to meet publicly for the first time this morning at the St. Louis Science Center. Fellow board members Melanie Adams and Richard Gaines will join Sullivan at the meeting.

Sullivan, who said he will not accept the salary he is entitled to under the statute that permits the city schools to operate as a transitional school district, promised that he and the board will not act impulsively.

He pledged that the community will play a major role in helping to find solutions for what he characterized as a crisis of regional proportion.

"There is no quick fix, there's no silver bullet. It is going to take the full engagement of the community and it is going to require the community to understand that this is going to take time, a lot of time," he said.

Sullivan said the board will meet with neighborhood groups, political organizations, churches and any and all other parties committed to improving public education in the city.

The new board, he said, is taking office without a plan to rectify the district's woes.

Sullivan said the lack of a blueprint is by design — his design.

"I know people are dying for answers and I know there are high expectations," he said. "But we also would have been criticized if we came in here with a plan. No one has a preconceived handbook about how this is going to work. Today, we begin work on that plan."

Sullivan's own efforts began immediately after Gov. Matt Blunt tapped him to serve as CEO on March 22.

Since then, Sullivan — with no previous experience in education — embarked on a crash course that included discussions with, by his own estimate, between 400 to 500 people.

The list included St. Louis teachers and principals, national educational experts and consultants and city and St. Louis County residents.

Conversations with state and private sector education officials, Sullivan said, could lead to economic incentives — tied to improved student performance — that would help the district reduce its $23 million deficit.

The trail also led him to school leaders in Chicago; Montgomery County, Md.; and Houston.

He spent three hours in Atlanta with that city's highly regarded superintendent, Beverly Hall.

Although his fact-finding mission did not yield specific reforms, it did provide Sullivan with a set of academic priorities including an emphasis on pre-kindergarten education.

"The focus the next four to five years has to be on improving high school scores," he said. "And that has to start in the lower grades, beginning with preschool."

Bourisaw stays
The administrator overseeing the board's initiatives as it undertakes its new responsibilities will be Bourisaw, hired last summer as the district's sixth superintendent since 2003.

During her tenure, Bourisaw has weathered personal attacks from one board member. In the past month, she has also withstood personal agendas imposed on her by others on the board.

"I'd like to see how she'll function without standing in the middle of the coliseum," Sullivan said.

He praised Bourisaw as an "expert educator and a wise person who is very, very dedicated to the kids."

The new board's support of the superintendent, however, comes with a caveat.

"We will also remain objective in accessing her achievements. She will be held accountable just as the board itself will be held accountable by the stakeholders of the St. Louis Public Schools."

Callahan's decision ends, at least for now, the district's long association with attorney Kenneth Brostron and his law firm, Lashly and Baer.

Sullivan said he has taken steps to bring in other lawyers to replace Brostron, who this week led the elected school board's legal challenge.

"Lashly and Baer cannot represent the Special Administrative Board while it is taking steps to the delay the full implementation of the (new board)," he said.

I wish that I could say that having a complete novice in public education (who sent his kids to parochial schools and who is part of the junta of housing developers that control the entire state to its detriment) will be a good thing, but I will say that it can't be a WORSE thing. The schools are already in complete disarray, and the real needs of the students (to get an... what's that word? education) are completely ignored.

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At 6/15/07, 7:41 PM, Blogger Christopher said...

Watching this all take place has been so fascinating. The reaction of the community, the disfunction (in my opinion) of the old board, the choices made for the new board... everything.

My question, what happens when the state can't improve things?

At 6/16/07, 5:16 AM, Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

I absolutely, positively hate the idea of vouchers, but this sounds like a situation in which vouchers are in order.

At 6/17/07, 7:37 AM, Blogger "Ms. Cornelius" said...

Unfortunately, apparently everyone involved in this situation believes the St. Louis Public Schools sgould serve a function other than education as its primary mission:

The School Board members behave as if the district exists for them to obtain work for their relatives, or computers for their own children (who don't attend the SLPS, by the way) or to carry out vendettas they feel against others in the community. When you listen to the school board, how many times do they actually mention concrete ideas about the students? Hardly ever.

The teachers public representatives act as if they are only concerned about their own security, when I know teachers within the district who struggle with decaying classrooms, missing textbooks, a highly transient population, gang activity, and general chaos from above. The teachers representatives make the teachers look bad.

The students are often free to roam the buildings, get into fights-- in short are free to do anything, but not EXPECTED to do anything productive. They come to see their friends, they come to settle disputes, they come to be fed, they DON'T come for an education. And why would they? That's not the clear mission of the school district.

I don't think the state WILL improve things until people with a passion for and experience in successfully educating students are able to go in and produce real change. I am not confident that Mr. Sullivan is it.

And a voucher system is what the governor WANTS to happen. That's why this new administrative board is loaded with amateurs.

At 6/18/07, 9:13 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

A school district in Houston had this happen to them awhile back. State basically took over because of such poor management. I hate to admit this, but sometimes the government is better than the people at running things.. Looks around to make sure nothing falls from the sky


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