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Sound Off on St. Louis Public Schools

March 25, 2007 Education, Politics/Policy 39 Comments

The other night a friend said I was “suspiciously silent” on the entire St. Louis Schools controversy, knowing I had been on vacation in California when the latest went down. Everyone is likely aware of the events of last week, the state of Missouri taking the final step to strip the St. Louis Public Schools of its accreditation and appoint a 3-member board to run the system, all effective in June. Governor Blunt has appointed suburban sprawl profiteer Rick Sullivan with Mayor Slay and President of the Board of Alderman-elect Lewis Reed to appoint the remaining two.

My silence has more to do with my lack of a clear position on the entire mess. I’m conflicted on events over the last few years leading to this point.

I know this much, Veronica O’Brien still seems to be the most unstable figure in the process as evidenced the recent phone incident with Superintendent Diana Bourisaw. See report from KSDK. Furthermore, we have a school board election just over a week away to replace two members whose terms are ending, yet it is doubtful anyone will pay attention as the elected board will likely be powerless. The local teacher’s union is pushing two candidates who will most likely win.

Legal challenges to the state takeover will also be put forth soon enough. A good thing or simply delaying the inevitable? Meanwhile Mayor Slay is pushing for the right to sponsor additional charter schools in the city.

I’m still researching and talking with various individuals closer to the subject than myself, hoping to form a clear and coherent position on the state and future of our schools. In the meantime, let me know what you think about where we’ve been over the last few years and what you think the future holds.


Currently there are "39 comments" on this Article:

  1. BenH says:

    Steve, like you I have conflicting views. The board/superintendent situation is achieving fiasco status (when is Veronica O’Brien going to finally check into rehab? geez) i think Bourisaw has shown some competence. But it seems only major change can reset the crazy flailing finger pointing school board.
    counterpoint: We already know Gov Blunt has no love for Saint Louis, cuz he thinks nobody wants to live there. So of course it bothers me that his admin will be controlling our schools. It also bothers me that his appointment to the state board is someone who right away starts talking about running the schools like a business (that he’s a guy from the exurbs without actual education qualifications doesnt instill confidence). Vatterott college is a business, the schools are not, they are not the same thing. Worst case scenario is that this is a test case for Blunt’s radical pro business ideology. If the test fails, nobody wants to live there anyway. There are parallels nationally, think Rumsfeld and the defense department and Brownie running FEMA. When people are appointed to positions with questionable expertise and radical agendas, start worrying. I predict hes gonna do a heckuva job.

  2. GMichaud says:

    When creating a whole person the environment these students come from is a major factor. That is the physical, social and economic environment. It will be an uphill battle to improve schools no matter what suit is put in charge until the comprehensive situation is addressed.
    If environment didn’t matter then the newly appointed head McBride exec Rick Sullivan would move to North St. Louis with his family. If environment didn’t matter then Chesterfield or St. Charles would not need to exist.
    If environment didn’t matter North St. Louis would be peopled by all of the high powered execs now living out west right now.
    The environment that surrounds these school children is at least as important as the school environment, perhaps more important. Why doesn’t Bush grade city and state leaders on the environment they give the children to live in as part of the Child left behind program?
    Yes it is more complicated to solve environmental problems, and our leaders run away from difficulty. They have failed America miserably even as they pat themselves on the back and give themselves awards.

    One example: once the African American Community finally was being treated with more fairness than any time in American history, the stepping stone jobs, the factory jobs, that helped achieve economic success and hence educational success of thousands of earlier Americans were shipped overseas.
    So now personal motives rule, the lust for money especially rules decision making at the governmental and corporate level.
    If this was really about the children, as they claim with their sound bites, then not only the schools would be the focus of reform, but the whole city also.

    This SLPS takeover business reminds me of the way the Iraq War was shoved down the throats of the American people, the same tactics were used for the takeover and I don’t think it was because they are concerned about the children. The proof is the debate, or the lack of it. Proposals and ideas are not to be found.

    [UrbanReviewSTL — Good points although I don’t think we should single out North St. Louis from South St. Louis.  Many of the issues such as economic segregation exist throughout the city and even into St. Louis County.  This creates an unstable home life which distracts the students from learning.  

    I like your point about environment but the solution is not to remake the city to look like Chesterfield.  I know you were not advocating that but I think it should be made clear.  I believe your point is a concentration of poverty, not the physical form of one area vs. another.] 

  3. need to know says:

    I read somewhere about how now that the district is unacredited, you can send your kids to a county school and the SLPS picks up the tab.

    Does that apply to all school age city kids?

  4. Jim Zavist says:

    One technical question – if the school board is going away, will there still be an election for school board members next week?

  5. joe b says:

    Any school district that turns a 50 million dollar surplus to a 25 million deficit in 5 years needs some serious attention.

    Not that money is going to stop the infighting but I was appalled to see a clip on tv of the board and the Super all with bottled water in front of them. A relatively minor expense but one that should certainly quickly be omitted from their budget.

    Downtown and the city needs at the very least a somewhat stable school district to survive. I see good things ahead with Missouri’s takeover.

    Certainly, it can’t get any worse.

  6. Jim Zavist says:

    While I agree that defining and creating educational success is a complex issue and includes many things the school board cannot and does not control, the current board and administration has done very little positive to fix what they do control. Way too much time is spent on political drama, reinventing the wheel and moving irrelevent agendas forward, and too few resources end up being devoted to educating children. While I’m no fan of outsiders coming in and telling us what we need to do, given the current circumstances, it’s the ONLY viable option. Elected office should not be a platform for personal agendas. It should be an opportunity to work for the betterment of the entire community, not just one segment. I wish the new guys the best of luck – they’re going to need it if they’re going to figure out this mess. And yes, looking at the system as a business will need to be a part of the solution. SLPS is not in place to provide lifetime emplyment to as many union members as possible, it’s here to educate out children!

  7. LisaS says:

    Jim, my understanding is that the citizens of St. Louis will continue to elect a School Board which will have no power, but presumably still cost us money, if only in elections.

    I don’t disagree with much of the sentiment expressed here, particularly regarding getting rid of the political drama, but so far as the “it can’t get any worse” statements …. there are a few schools in the system that were consistently recognized by the State on their Top Ten lists (http://dese.mo.gov/divimprove/assess/TopTen/, interesting that they didn’t publish one with the 2006 results) of high performing schools, and several that perform right below that mark and above the the state average. Kennard, McKinley, Metro we expect, but Bryan Hill and Peabody? Those of us with children in these schools are really, really worried that the good will be thrown out with the bad.

  8. Good job, Steve. On an issue this big there is no need to come to conclusions — that tendency has caused some of the problems in SLPS. This is a huge issue that needs thorough consideration, especially by people like you who shape public debate.

  9. newsteve says:

    Perhaps it is time to start running the St. Louis public schools like a business instead of one big political playground. While I feel sorry for the kids who will now attend unaccredited schools (I,m still not sure I understand the full impact of this) – it seems as if the system was going nowhere fast. I know Mr. Sullivan – while he lives in the suburbs and is an exec with a big construction firm ( a successful employee owned firm) – he is a good person who will be dedicated to this position and will do all in his power to revive the city schools. If I were him, Im not so sure I would have accepted this position. He certainly has an uphill battle and will face much resistence.

    As for the comments regarding his experience in education – has that ever been a prerequisite for our school board memebers. While it may play a part in someone’s decision to vote for a particular candidate, it has been my experience that most school board memebers are not school administrators. I beleive that he has served as a director on two university boards and has been active with Habitat for Humanity and Teach for America. Sullivan also sits on the boards of Lindenwood University and the Regional Chamber & Growth Association. I believe he also was a board member of Villa Duchesne/Oak Hill School, a parochial school in Frontenac. He also founded “Read, Right and Run,” a local program that encourages children to run a mile a week for 26 weeks, read 26 books, and do 26 acts of kindness. He is also active with Mentor St. Louis, a program matching St. Louis Public School students with long-term mentors which has served thousands of elementary school students. I think it is clear that he has the drive, passion and ability to turn the schools around. In as much as these are the cards that have been dealt, I certainly hope that he gets the support he will desparately need to be successful.

  10. john says:

    Solutions only come from choice. Until the monopoly is broken, solutions will be impossible. Over 100 years ago, the University of Chicago opened what is called the Lab Schools, which became internationally recognized as public shools of excellence. As far as experts go, we have SLU, WashU and UMSL… where are these respected citizens?

    Gee, I almost forgot, aren’t these the institutions that want our parks, TIFs, control of MetroLink, relocating corporate parks, but what about educating our youth?

  11. Katie Wessling says:

    The comments here are indicative of two of the greatest worries I now have about our schools.

    The first is the unsurety of the voters about the election. There is an election, and this elected Board will be in place at least until June, if not beyond. Should the legal challenges succeed, and I believe they will, the Board will be in place as always. It is very important for the voters of this city to show they care about our children by paying attention to the candidates and by voting on April 3. This election is about much more than the school board. Both the Board election and Prop P, the other big thing on the ballot, have in common the underlying thread that big political interests are doing their best to keep issues away from the voters. A low voter turnout will give validity to their argument that the voters don’t care, so why bother having elections? Maybe those reading this don’t care about the schools or the parks, but at some point there will be an issue you care about (eminent domain of your home, anyone?) and if you haven’t protected your right to vote, you may not have it when you want it.

    The second is the analogy of Mr. Sullivan to a school board member, and the statement that if school board members aren’t typically educators what is the big deal if he isn’t. He is not being appointed to be a school board member. He is being recommended to act as the CEO of this district, which replaces the Superintendent. A Superintendent needs to be an educator. I have no reason to think he is not a good man or that his intentions are not good. But if you were hiring a superintendent for your child’s district, and you had his resume up against Dr. Bourisaw’s, I would hope that you would see she is the one suited for this particular task. If she had been given the support by our city leaders that Mr. Sullivan will likely get, imagine what could have been accomplished by now. Mr. Sullivan may have drive, passion and ability, but so does Dr. Bourisaw, and so do those of us who are running in this election because it will be our children who pay the price for decisions being made.

    We are finally seeing good changes in this District, and those who say this takeover is for the best are for the most part not the ones whose children are affected. This election will fix the problems the Board has been dealing with since the 2003 election. Think about why the politicians are so insistent that the takeover be announced before the election.

    Katie Wessling
    School Board Candidate
    Mother of 2 SLPS schoolchildren

  12. maurice says:

    There has been no solid evidence that Dr. Bourisaw will be removed from office. To suggest otherwise is a scare tactic. It is important to remember that there are plenty of opportunities for those that can bring different ideas/operational styles/management expertise to the table.

    As for Mr. Sullivan, I have mixed feelings as well. Can he be a pawn in a complex game to rid the voters and the city of control of its future? Possible.

    Can he be an individual who actually has something to risk here? Yes, His product (homes) will sell better if the buyers have an education and well paying jobs/careers. In this context, he might actually have the long term interest at heart. His compan(ies) are in it for the long haul.

    Time will tell.

    Maurice St. Pierre
    school board candidate

  13. Yahoo says:

    Can any city family now get a voucher to send their kid to a county school! Yahoo! Can you say, “increasing property values, baby!” Hubba, hubba, hubba…!!! Now we can finally get something for all the property taxes we’re paying! Yeahhh!

  14. Nick says:

    Steve, I love when you talk education. I think you have some insightful things to say and this blog provides a great format for us to discuss the issue in St. Louis most in need of repair. Unfortunately, you’ve got some readers and frequent commenters that run this discussion into the ground. Please explain to me, Jim Z, how looking at the system like a business will help. I’m calling you out because you’re the asshole spouting anti-union bullshit and saying we should educate kids on how to live life with a boring 9-5 job. Is that they teach your kids out in St. Charles? What about teaching kids to reach for more than they can have? What about instilling in them the ambition to make their situations better? Or is their situation so helpless that we should teach them to live life bored? If so, don’t you think we should really give them the best “education” possible and teach them how to live their lives with two or three shitty part time jobs and how to feed their kids when they can’t afford it?

    Back to the matter at hand, running schools like businesses. What do you mean by that? SLPS goals should be to make money? Should we pursue a low-cost strategy? Just think about it, St. Louis School District can be the Wal-Mart of public schools. Maybe we should really differentiate our product from our competitors. We can teach creationism and abstinence-only in between Boring Life 101 and Conformity 150. While you’re at it, I would appreciate you letting me know what your beef with unions is. Did they ruin that dream you always had as a kid of working in a factory seven days a week for minuscule amounts money? For a guy who reads and comments on here as often as you do, I imagine you have a pretty cush job and the answer to that last one is “no”. Seriously though, let me know. In the meantime, I have to get back to my menial job, but I’ll be back after I put the McNuggets in the fryer.

  15. maurice says:

    Thats a pretty caustic reply Nick, regardless of who it is directed at. Steve does a great job of providing a forum for the expression of ideas of what can be better in the City. I will be the first to say that Steve and I do not always agree, but we both agree that the City CAN be better, and MUST be better if we as a region are going to improve and be competitive in today’s economies.

    As for the SLPS running as a buisness. Actually they are. Yes, as a candidate for school board, I am stating that fact. For too long everyone’s solution to improving education is throw more money at it and it will go away. Guess what? It isn’t going away, and instead it is getting worse. SLPS is now with a deficit. Look at Riverview…waste and pilfering. I’m not saying that they should be totally business oriented because obviously their ‘product’ if you will, education, is different for each individual child. But that is no excuse for not providing PROPER stewardship for the resources the taxpayers have given to the system. Somewhere between Wal-mart mentality and charity, there is a mid-point that needs to be flushed out and followed. We can provided a better education for the children, but not at the expense of providing patronage jobs or retaining those that allow the schools to deteriorate and those that cannot teach.

    I chose not to appear before the teachers or the service union when they reviewed candidates because I would not agree to be an agent for the union. Among the questions aksed were if I was willing to picket, allow unionization, and speak out for unions activities.

    Unions, in and of themselves have a place. They protect employees from unfair work practices, low wages, etc. But they also can be part of the problem as well. One need only to look at Ford and GM to see the burdens placed on them by the unions. Yeah, some of those burdens are there by management’s fault (cars customers don’t want, obsolete ordering and inventory processes, too long from planning to production), but some are the unions….do you think it is fair for an employee to go out for retooling, and still get paid 90% of their salary?

    I’m not saying the teacher or service union is bad. But they have helped build this monster and now it is time for them to step up to the plate and help find a solution. Everyone involved with the schools over the past 30 years have had a hand in the events that have lead up to this. Even the bystanders, the ordinary citizen, that has let society fall apart and for children to be raised by one or absent parents, hungry, lead-contaminated have had a hand in this. No one is innocent… we are all in this together.

    As the schools go so does the community.

    Maurice St. Pierrre
    school board candidate

  16. TM says:

    Off Topic –

    How about another post of assorted readings on urban issues? I enjoyed the last one.

  17. Jim Zavist says:

    Nick – I wouldn’t know how they do things in St Charles – I live in St. Louis. Any government agency can stand to take a step back and take a look at how they deliver their services to their customers, the taxpayers. Most government agencies have a monopoly on the market they work in, so there’s less pressure from the “real world” of profit and loss to be efficient. (And it’s not about “maximizing profits”, it’s about not wasting limited resources!) When a school district is keeping multiple schools open at 10%-30%-50% of capacity, tax dollars are being wasted. Close one or more buildings (and yes, eliminate a few union jobs) and operate more efficiently. Operating one building that is 85%-90% full makes a whole lot more sense than operating two that are 45% full – one principal, not two. One gas bill and one electric bill, not two. One new roof, not two. It will save overhead, leaving more dollars to deliver an education to our children! Running the district “like a business” does not assume anything about the quality of the teachers. It just assumes that waste is just that, waste. The city has limited resources and they need to be used wisely. Sentimentality is nice, but it dioesn’t pay the bills. And if the private sector can cut the grass, mop the floors, paint the walls and take out the trash just as well for less money, there’s no valid reason to keep these types of jobs “in house”.

    My “anti-union” perspective comes from working a lot of years without being in a union and managing to succeed “in spite” of not having their “assistance”. It takes working hard, keeping my clients and bosses happy and satisfied. It comes from owning my own business for 16 years and understanding intimately what it takes to actually “make money”. It comes from working union jobs in the past where the biggest goal of the workers was doing the least amount of work possible without getting fired. It comes from being an elected official and watching a union work to protect stupid work rules instead of implementing a bonus program to reward extra effort. It comes from being a taxpayer who sees a looming unfunded liability from promised pension and health care benefits to current and retired government workers.

    As for educating kids for “9-5 jobs”, what’s wrong with that? Shouldn’t kids graduate from high school with the skills one needs to function in the working world? I’m not out to “squash dreams”, but I am out to keep them in perspective. Being a pretty damn good “artiste” ain’t gonna put food on the table unless you’re a) extremely talented, or b) extremely lucky. You do more harm than good to create dreams that can’t ever be fulfilled. By definition, most of us are average. If we can accept that reality, it will make it a whole lot easier to “find our place in the world”. If the educational system glosses over that reality and doesn’t educate kids on the basics, it’s no wonder that a) they don’t test well, b) they do not do well once they “graduate” and c) they’re frustrated with the “real world”. Bottom line, “Life ain’t fair!”

  18. Jim Zavist says:

    Upon further reflection . . . this is not a “union” issue. It’s a problem with a consistent pattern of failure to perform to a minimum standard. The state Board is not out looking for a district to strip accreditaion from – if anything, they’ve given the SLPS multiple opportunities to reach that minimum standard. Want to point fingers? There are plenty of places to point them. Yes, the union advocates hard to protect their members’ jobs – that’s what they do. I may not like that part of the system, but I don’t work in it, I just pay my taxes and hope for the best. But you can also point to parents who move out of the city before their kids reach school age or put their kids in (non-union) parochial schools. You can point to a series of local school boards who rarely let a superintendent keep his or her job for more than a year. You can point to resources being wasted. You can point to a litany of social and societal ills. The bottom line is that we, as a community, are not successfully educating the children in the SLPS – the tests prove it! We’ve had multiple “opportunities” to elect effective leadership, but apparently have not. This continued pattern is one of the biggest disincentives that keeps both people and businesses from locating in the city. A change is obviously needed to “claw our way up” to a minimum level of competency. That’s why I wish the “new guys” the best. That’s also why I believe that treating the system like a business makes a lot of sense. Create a “product” that appeals to the parents who are leaving and odds are pretty good that you’ll “raise the curve” when it comes to testing. Manage the budget better and consolidate facilities where possible and you’ll have more money for each student AND for the remaining employees. Figure out how to reward excellence in teaching (instead of protecting the weakest), and you’ll see more motivated students AND teachers. This isn’t about turning SLPS into Wal·Mart, it’s about rebuilding a system with a lot of problems, both real and perceived!

  19. stlmama says:


    Your last part is interesting–create a product to appeal to parents and lure them back. Right now the mayor is backing a bill introduced by Sen. Jeff Smith which would, among other things, require students to be in school 8 1/2 hours a day (that doesn’t count their transportation time) and 10 months a year. That alone as a parent would keep me from moving into the city. Exactly who is the mayor trying to attract, here?

    And regarding electing effective leadership–the terms of the mayor’s slate meant we were stuck with these people until their terms were up. As their terms come up, we are systematically voting them out. We’re doing it as fast as we can, and after this election it will finally be done. Why are we being penalized for not doing it faster–we couldn’t! And don’t forget, there’s no guarantee this new crowd will be effective leaders, as you say. All we know is there will be three people that three politicians owed a favor to–or three people who are doing the politicians a favor. Neither makes me feel particularly comfortable. The difference is we can’t vote them out if they don’t do what we need.

  20. Nick says:

    Nice comeback. Seriously. There’s a lot to address here and I hope I don’t forget anything. I agree with you that it’s not a union issue, which is why I got upset that you kept mentioning them as part of the problem. I’m not saying unions are all good, but I believe they serve a purpose. But we agree on that so lets drop it. I hear what you’re saying about running the schools like a business, efficiency and non-wasteful spending. I couldn’t agree more. But aside from being common sense and not running things like a business, there are other issues that need to be considered. Combining two schools that are running at 25-45% capacity sounds like a great idea, and a great way to cut costs, but how far do those kids have to walk to get to school now. What neighborhoods do they have to walk through? What about the schools that are overcrowded with over 30 kids in a classroom? Let’s use some common sense and cut costs where we can, but let’s think about what we’re doing and how it will affect these kids and there families. Again, I agree, most of us are average (not me though), but if we teach that then no one is special. Teach kids that they can do anything, encourage them to chase their dreams, inspire them to fight for the lives they want. Maybe they can’t do anything, or they don’t catch their dreams, or they lose the fight. That is the bitter truth of reality, but teaching that will only crush their spirits. By all means, teach them basic finance, and how to balance a check book but don’t teach them that “life isn’t fair and it’s time to accept that.”

    The St. Louis School board failed us, but we failed them too. No offense to anybody on the board, but you guys screwed up, big time. I’m not saying I could do better. I just mean to say that nothing has worked. You seem to have a pretty optimistic viewpoint and you wish the new guys the best of luck. Maybe I’m just jaded, but I do not share your optimism. Blunt hates St. Louis and putting his buddy in charge of the schools makes me worried. The first comment on here talks about how the guy has no experience in education. Newsteve counters that this hasn’t been a requirement for school board members. Aren’t we trying to make some changes here? Maybe we should hire someone who knows a thing or two about education. Then there’s Katie, alerting all of us that Sullivan will replace the superintendent. I had no idea, but this is fantastic. I remember the last businessman who had no experience in education who ran the district, how well did that turn out? I would like to take this time to thank the board members (read: Mayor Slay’s lackeys) who voted to give William Roberti a job and a credit card. Maurice says that it’s in Sullivan’s interest to make the schools better. I disagree. With crappy schools in the city, people flee further and further into the counties, where new homes will have to be built in order to accommodate the crowds. Maybe Sullivan will give me a deal on the construction of my new home in Chesterfield if my kid failed out of school on his watch.

    St. Louis schools has problems. I’m not here to list them off. I’m not here to blame people for them. I’m here to say that we need to figure out the best way to fix the problems. I leave you with the idealistic, Utopian words of Sam Seaborn from an episode of The West Wing, “…education is the silver bullet. Education is everything. We don’t need little changes, we need gigantic changes. Schools should be palaces. The competition for the best teachers should be fierce. They should be making six-figure salaries. Schools should be incredibly expensive for government and absolutely free of charge to its citizens, just like national defense. That’s my position. I just haven’t figured out how to do it yet.”

    Me neither, but I will.

  21. can't believe says:

    To stlmama,

    Getting people, families, to move into the city without the 10 and half hour school day, plus transportation time isn’t working either. I doubt many county parents are thinking, ‘We’ve just got to move east of Skinker because then we can get our kids into SLPS.’ Anecdotally, probably, but not in serious numbers. The district is losing students [the city is treading water, population wise, the region is increasing a little], and has been losing students for years upon years, not just since 2003.

    I offer no assurances that the new group will get it together, but after thirty years of decline, I am willing to give some leeway.

  22. Jim Zavist says:

    Don’t get me wrong – I have no prolem with “Teach[ing] kids that they can do anything, encourage them to chase their dreams, inspire them to fight for the lives they want.” Where I have a problem is that this is (apparently) being done at the expense of teaching them the “basics”! These standardized tests don’t test for dreams and ambitions, they test for basic competency and compare “our” kids with kids across the country. The reason accreditation is going away is pretty simple – our kids aren’t meeting these basic standards. So, while “motivating” is a major part of both the solution and the problem, so is learning the “boring” basics . . .

    [UrbanReviewSTL — Yes, graduates should have the ability to write down their dreams and then read them back.]

  23. stlmama says:

    Can’t believe,

    Have you looked at housing prices in the city lately? They are building houses in the Lindenwood Park area and asking close to $300K for them. Look at those lofts downtown and the prices people are paying for those. 2 bedroom south city bungalows go for over $150K. This argument that people are refusing to buy in the city because of the schools is pretty hard to buy at this point. But I bet the 8 1/2 hour school day and an unaccredited school district will slow all that down.

  24. can't believe says:

    The people who are buying downtown lofts especially are not those who are sending their kids to school. They either don’t have them or send them to private schools (which is totally fine). It is not that people are not moving in, it is that families with public school kids are not moving in. Check the numbers, the district is losing students. People with kids are voting with their feet and either moving out, staying out or sending their kids to private/deseg schools. Not exactly a ringing endorsement of the SLPS. This is not a new trend.

    An unaccredited school district just confirms what a lot of people all over the area think already, SLPS is not that good, if not very bad. There are bright spots, like Metro, but Metro has about 300 students and the school district has over 30,000 students. So, if your child is in the top 5% of achievers, you will do ok (with or without Metro, in my opinion).

    The housing market is slowing down already, so that shouldn’t be used as a barometer.

    Beyond the length of the school day, are the schools going to get significantly better? I don’t know, not as a dodge, but longer school days have done good work in some schools. I don’t know if it will here. Some parents may look at it as free ‘keep my child out of trouble’ sitting, some may look less benignly on it.

  25. stlmark says:

    Who cares if we as citizens cannot vote on the school board members, or if they become powerless. Did you go to any of the school board member debates? Were you impressed? The people I voted for didn’t get elected anyhow. So I am not represented by whom I thought could make a difference (Buford and Clinksdale). When Downs/Jones got elected, things got worse in the public spotlight. It could have been timing, but they did indeed get worse.

    I’ll be sending my plea to Sullivan and Slay for vouchers and/or neighborhood schools. That would be a great outcome in my mind, even if it takes 6 years.

    Even if we could merely set up neighborhood schools that would be a great start.

  26. Webby says:

    The SLPS does not need to be run like a business. It needs to be run like a successful public school district.

    They’re out there…in cities and towns across the nation…no one has to re-invent the wheel to figure out what works…just take a look at what’s working in other places, and figure out a way to transfer those practices here. Of course, with our political set-up, that probably not possible. We’d have to get the right people in charge and give them the resources they need (money, and lots of it, and political influence) to get the job done. We’d need to figure out a way to make parents take an active interest in their children’s progress at school. We’d need to get discipline in the classroom. And qualified, certified teachers, while we’re at it. Teachers who are fully supported by their fellow teachers and administrators. We’d need to get rid of that three-ring circus that’s masquerading as a school board (which is voted in by the extremely small minority of people who care enough to vote, but base their decisions largely on who they DON’T want on the board), and get rid of that psychotic one-woman freak show that’s running the board. (Oh, wait, we’ve done that…maybe we ARE making progress!)

    No wonder people don’t want to send their kids to SLPS. I certainly wouldn’t. It’s all like a bad wreck you don’t want to see, but you can’t stop watching.

  27. Jim Zavist says:

    “money, and lots of it”?????? Money isn’t the problem, managing what we already give them IS! I have no problem with using “best practices” from around the country, but just throwing money at the problem ain’t one of ’em!

  28. Jim Zavist says:

    Nick – I share your concerns about “how far do those kids have to walk to get to school now. What neighborhoods do they have to walk through?” But haven’t we reached the point where very, very few parents are willing to let their kids walk or ride their bikes anywhere more than half a block away from home? The term “soccer mom” translates into daily traffic jams around every school in town! So whether they end up driving their little darlings a half mile each way or a mile and a half, it’s essentially the same deal.

    “Neighborhood” schools are a good thing, IF we were still attracting most kids from the neighborhood. When you’re attracting only 10% or 20% of a diminished school-age population (with the others headed off to magnet, parochial or private schools), it’s hard to justify the luxury of keeping schools open when they’re operating at less than 30% of capacity. IF we can turn the perceptions around and start moving the numbers up, sure keep them open. But if the history over the past twenty years is small and shrinking, it’s time for some hard decisions, on a case-by-case basis.

  29. Nick says:

    Jim, you might be right, you might not, I don’t know. But that’s kind of my point. Before we decide to close down any school we have to take into consideration the impact it is going to have on the kids and their families and the rest of the neighborhood. If the impact is small enough, then by all means, shut the school down, if not, figure something else out. As far as what’s being taught in the classroom, I don’t think there has been an overemphasis on motivation and inspiration. Yes, Steve, they should be able to write down their dreams and be able to read it back, but I don’t think teachers are sitting around in classrooms teaching dreams and not math. The math and the reading and the writing and the science just isn’t catching on, and I don’t know why that is, but I actually have a hard time blaming the teachers for the test failures. When was the last time SLPS was passing the standardized tests? At that time, were the tests getting better or worse? How many schools were open then and how many now? How many students were in those schools and in those classrooms back then and right now? How many teachers have we lost since then? What else has changed since then? (These are serious questions, I don’t know the answers, so if someone wants to step up and give me some real numbers, it would be much appreciated) They’ve got the hardest job and the lowest pay. I’m not in favor of “throwing money at the problem” because St. Louis Public Schools spends considerably more money per student than many of the other school districts in the state (if you want to argue with me on this, I’ll get real numbers; I don’t know them off the top of my head).

    Maybe it’s just the fact that I’ve been hearing these people’s names on the news and in the papers for the past however many years, but it seems like the school board is comprised of politicians. This seems absurd to me. We shouldn’t be talking about the political capital needed to get something done with the schools. We shouldn’t be talking about lackey’s to the mayor and the governor. We should be talking about good people, who are trying to do what’s right for the children of the city. How do you take the politics out of education?

  30. LisaS says:

    While in many ways I agree with you, Jim, that it would be better to consolidate buildings, the cost savings may not be as simple to figure as principal salary, maintenance, etc. I read somewhere yesterday shifted my thinking on this somewhat: the district is trying to limit transportation expenses to $13 per student per month. The numbers are staggering. 31,000 x 13 x 10 months amounts to $4 million a year. The SLPS buses most students–I know kids who live as close as a half mile from my son’s school who ride a bus. Walking (or riding a bike) to school seems to be mostly nostalgia because of heightened societal pressures and perceptions about safety. Most parents–including me–aren’t comfortable letting a child of any age out of sight long enough to get themselves to school (or even to the bus stop on the corner) because of the (largely irrational, but intense) fear of child abduction, whether they live in the most crime-ridden corner of the City or St. Charles. Most parents–including me–often don’t have time to walk or bike a kid to school because we work. Some parents will absolutely not allow their child to ride in any vehicle without seat belts.

    But the other thing a neighborhood school provides is an identity, and I think we shouldn’t dismiss that lightly. When Arkansas started consolidating its school districts some years ago, many residents of tiny towns protested because it meant the loss of community events like football games and band concerts. Making schools K-8 instead of K-5 might help with the population issues, and I think would be more appropriate than the 6-12 alignments included in this years facility recommendations plan (check out http://www.slps.org/public_comment/facility/faq.html). This could be a particularly good plan if we combined it with real choices for everyone about where to go to high school. But … re-establishing neighborhood schools might throw us back into the entire desegregation mess because we have so many 90% black and 90% areas, and, as Jim already noted, many children–I would estimate about 70-75% overall, nearly 100% in many neighborhoods–attend private, parochial, or magnet schools.

  31. Jim Zavist says:

    Unfortunately, when you decide to run for political office (of any sort), you become a “politician”. The hard part about attracting the “best and the brightest” to run for most offices is the combination of low (or no) pay, a big time commitment and the negatives that come with being publicly scrutinized (fairly and unfairly) on pretty much every decision you make – you’re never going to make everyone happy, and especially when it comes to educating their children. Combine that with the ability of small groups with specific agendas to get “their people” to turn out and vote and rampant voter apathy and you get what we have today.

    How do we improve things? One answer would be to wipe the slate clean and start over – get rid of ALL the baggage (but that’ll never happen). Another answer would be to split into 4-6 smaller districts with 6,000-8,000 students each (a huge challenge politically). Charter schools and vouchers each have their advocates (who believe market forces will force improvements) – I’m not one of them. I also don’t think that our teachers are measureably “worse” than those in other districts. We are saddled with a higher percentage of students who start school “behind” and we do have a bunch of older buildings that require more maintenance. I’m also afraid that we’re saddled with an attitude problem that Bill Cosby has articulated – education simply isn’t valued by some adolescents (http://www.eightcitiesmap.com/transcript_bc.htm). The bottom line is we need to change attitudes, and that’s something that you really can’t do legislatively. Like many others, I see a lot of problems, but few solutions . . .

    Being a baby boomer, I come from a time when we had 40 or more kids in a classroom, so I don’t put a lot of stock in the need for small class sizes. (We also didn’t have air conditioning and I rode the school bus through high school – waaah.) I don’t know if our parents prepared us better, pushed us harder or we simply had fewer distractions – we didn’t have cell phones, i-pods, game boys, the internet, cable TV or, for the most part, working moms. Once it got dark (and we couldn’t play outside), we were stuck with picking between 3 channels on a black-and-white TV, calling our friends on the wall phone in the kitchen, doing the dishes or studying. Plus, we had closed campuses and a fear of discipline when we were in school. The world is different today, and it’s going to take some different thinking to turn the SLPS around . . .

    [UrbanReviewSTL — I’m told the concept of smaller total enrollment works well for low-income districts. While I am not convinced the local public school district is going to suddenly respond to charter schools I do think the option of the charter school (among others) will help naturally reduce the size of the main district.

    While not a baby boomer, I am among the older of the GenX crowd. I was lucky enough to have public schools within walking/biking distance from my house so I never rode the bus except for 5th Grade (Oklahoma City had 5th Grade Centers where those normally not bused were sent across town in that single grade). We didn’t have air conditioning either. I think I was in high school before I got a phone in my room, but it was on the same line as my parents (a pulse line at that). In HS the campus was open so we could leave for lunch. Ah, good times.]

  32. KBestOliver says:

    Teacher chiming in–

    Great points all around here. I don’t teach in SLPS, but I live in the city. To clarify: if the district remains unaccredited, SLPS must foot the bill for students to transfer to other public districts. This sounds great, but in reality, won’t work very well in practice because

    1) the county schools can choose whether or not they participate
    2) they also choose how many kids they will take
    3) they cannot screen what kids they take
    4) SLPS will only pay about $6,000 per student (which is about half of what it costs to educate a student)
    5) SLPS will not pay for transportation
    6) SSD will not provide services for city students

    Therefore, I believe most districts will not accept SLPS students. I know ours won’t because it is not economically feasible for us. The larger districts like Rockwood and Parkway probably won’t because they don’t have room.

    For the record, I think Rick Sullivan is a poor choice to lead the SLPS. If you are going to pick a rich white guy to revolutionize a mostly poor black district, he had better have an unbelievable resume of educational leadership and administration, and this guy doesn’t have it. If you’ve read Paulo Freire’s work, he would probably say this is classic oppressing behavior by Blunt.

  33. complex problems says:

    There are so many other issues here that need to be added to this discussion that it is hard to know where to start. That’s not a criticism, just a statement of how complicated I think this problem is.

    First of all, it is difficult to compare dollars spent per student in SLPS to most county districts. Many if not most county districts have the resources of the Special School District available to them. Last I knew, SLPS did not. That alone adds a tremendous cost to the system. As someone else mentioned, the transportation costs are staggering. The district is geographically huge but the number of vacant buildings is incredible. What is the density of school age children by zip code (or ward, or precinct or whatever measure you want)? I suspect in some areas it is outrageously low compared to most county schools, but can’t say for sure. Does anyone know where to get those numbers? Low density means low percentage usage, or higher transportation costs.

    Second, look at the tax base and the factors affecting it. This is not just a SLPS problem. How incredibly stupid is it to have local governing bodies make decisions to abate real estate taxes (thru TIFs or other public financing mechanisms) so they can collect additional sales taxes. The same low density problem that complicates transportation issues also adversely affects financing. A number of years ago, I read that the single largest landowner in the City was the City. All the vacant buildings taken for back taxes don’t contribute a nickel to SLPS.

    If the mayor wants to help, find a way to fill those buildings. Thirty years ago Baltimore had a program where you could buy a property for a $1, as long as you agreed to fix it up and live in it for a certain number of years. People bought those houses and whole neighborhoods were re-created. And believe me, Baltimore city schools were not the best schools in the state at the time, either. The city doesn’t need 5 new housing developments with $300,000 houses; it needs 10,000 houses with middle class owners willing to invest in their homes, their schools and their neighborhoods. And if that means knocking down a few buildings that are mildly architecturally significant but have been vacant for 10 years, then so be it – Knock them down!

    The long term solution for schools that are operating at 40% capacity is to fill the schools, not close them. I know this looks like a chicken v. egg problem, but I don’t think it is. I think the mayor has to put his primary emphasis on fixing the city first, while the School Board works on the schools. New parents demanding new programs, quality teachers and first rate facilities will go a long way towards reaching that goal.

    And the State and Feds have to get off their butts, or more accurately get their heads out of them. Every time the State builds a new highway to the suburbs with Federal highway dollars, it encourages people to move west. Every time they build a new bridge across another river, they encourage people to move out. Tell your Congressional rep or State delegate we need incentive programs for people to re-populate our cities, not convert farmland to suburbia. And vote that way too.

  34. LisaS says:


    You are correct that the SLPS does its own special education programs. Some municipalities in St. Louis County (U City, for example) also run their own programs. It’s common knowledge that disadvanted (poor) people have higher levels of need for these services for whatever reasons, and there’s no question there’s significant cost and performance issues related to that.

    I don’t know if it’s common knowledge, particularly among newcomers to the area, but the City has had a program to sell LRA properties to investors, be they home owners, speculators, etc, for incredibly low prices for many years. Check out their web site: http://stlouis.missouri.org/development/realestate/purchase/ for information, pricing and a list of properties.

  35. tyra says:

    I am a new city resident just off of Newstead with 2 children 12…16 thats 7th and 11th grade what do I do now and where will my kids attend school to get a decent education that will allow them to get into a decent college beyond the local community college..please….please….please….please….call me or write a response I would greatly appreciated.

    Tyra Renee Ware
    3120 North Newstead
    Saint louis, MO 63115

  36. A. Teacher says:

    The situations with the schools is not hopeless. Instead of focusing on things seemingly outside our control, we need to remain committed to those things which we have the power to change. As a teacher, I can take responsibility for raising expectations and ensuring my students receive an excellent education despite what may be going on around us. If we work together as a community we can work toward a solution rather than spending our time and energy fighting with one another.

  37. Peggy says:

    I think St. Louis has been beset by privateers.

    The mission of the St. Charles MO school board is, I believe, to dismantle and privatize the district by creating a false crisis of money, enrollment, etc. No Child Left Behind is taking too long. So they’re speeding things up by crying wolf, when people can see from their own financial statements that they’re full of bull.

    The agenda of No Child Left Behind is to privatize public schools.
    It’s not good for kids – nothing about it is designed to provide a better education.

    All you folks who have kids in private school and are wanting that tuition money, do a little research on the Internet first. Be careful what you wish for.

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