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The New Role of the Elected St. Louis School Board

March 28, 2007 Education, Politics/Policy 19 Comments

The following viewpoint was submitted to me by a regular reader that I have met in person. Given that we will be electing two new members to the St. Louis Public School board in the face of a state takeover, I thought this was timely and of interest.  The election is this coming Tuesday April 3, 2007.

When reviewing the lists of tasks proposed for the new versus the existing leadership boards, I wondered, “What positive impact and responsibilities would the publicly-elected board have?”The answer appears to be the same function as that of a group of officers elected to represent a large PTA, in its traditional role (see mission of National PTA). Reflecting on what I recall that PTAs of my generation would do for their schools and their district, I don’t recall any PTA being involved in representing much less leading labor and employment matters, nor capital expenditures, nor curriculum, nor any of the functions that are being proposed to be assigned to the new appointed board. The PTA’s role was to act as a macro conduit from the parents to the schools in improving communications and guidance ultimately to the superintendent for the benefit of the students and to act as a conduit from the schools to the parents to improve the parents’ abilities to raise, educate and protect their children…nothing more. They had no taxpayer-funded, salaried staff nor outside legal counsel reporting directly to them, as the present board has. They did not get involved in union negotiations or any personnel decisions, nor did they have a role in reviewing neither curriculum nor vendor contracts. They simply were to act a constructive voice of the parents as well as a constructive voice of the schools.I think the elected board’s new role could be a very positive thing to publicize going forward. The people running for office to serve in this new role of a publicly-elected board would have to ask themselves and sell to the public why they were interested as well as qualified to serve in this more limited, but still very important function. The superintendent and other school officials would find it helpful to utilize this group to download new policies and procedures that were designed to improve classroom and student outcomes, to increase volunteer and community support of existing and new programs and the neighborhood schools themselves and, most importantly, to improve parents’ abilities to, frankly, be excellent parents of their children.

Perhaps the elected board would assign themselves geographic areas of the school district, so every school would have one board member assigned to it to facilitate the dialogue between each parent and school management. If a parent could not make progress on their own to resolve an issue or could not understand how to assist their children on a matter, then the board member could be turned to for following through on the issue, acting as an advocate for the parent but also to help communications and provide assistance on educational and parental topics if indeed that was all that was needed.

In essence, the present and newly elected board members would serve as the vox populi, a role that many could clearly be qualified for.

The author of the above also suggests reading the report; School Boards: Focus on School Performance, Not Money and Patronage
By Paul T. Hill
. From the introduction:

Local school boards meet frequently, sometimes more than once each week, and produce a steady stream of policies and initiatives. They spend the bulk of their time on budgetary and personnel issues and on resolving complaints, leaving little time for oversight of instruction or even reviewing data about school performance.

Should Americans be content with the principle that government oversight follows money and jobs? This paper argues to the contrary, that government regulation and oversight are now both excessive in one dimension (budgetary) and shockingly negligent in the other (school performance). It concludes that the work of local school boards can be focused on what children need to know and whether the schools are teaching it effectively. The report has three parts:

  • Why the existing structure of oversight does not promote school performance;
  • What performance-focused oversight of schools would entail; and
  • How the missions and activities of school boards and district central offices must change.

This is certainly all food for thought. What do you think?


Currently there are "19 comments" on this Article:

  1. Yahoo says:

    No one is answering the basic question: Are all city school-aged kids now entitled to attend a county school at SLPS expense?

  2. Katie Wessling says:

    City kids, if the district is unaccredited, can opt to ask a school in a neighboring district to accept them. The other district does NOT have to take them, which is something that is often not mentioned in this discussion.

  3. LisaS says:

    If the elected school board will serve as a glorified PTO, then what is the purpose of the Parents Assembly? (http://locations.slps.org/location.asp?RecordID=56565A&LocName=Parent%20Assembly%20of%20St.%20Louis%20Public%20School)

    While very involved in the PTOs at both of my children’s schools, I haven’t really seen the purpose of the overall organization except as an organ of the administration.

  4. need to know says:

    Ms. Wessling, Does it matter whether they were already enrolled in the SLPS? Can kids from parochial schools request a “voucher” to attend a county school?

  5. Jim Zavist says:

    Reality check: Few, if any, suburban school districts are going to be able to accomodate a huge influx of students from the city, be they public or parochial students. Like SLPS, they are all limited by space and budget constraints, and they’re going to have a really hard time convincing their voters to fund improvements that will primarily benefit “city” students, with or without state funding.

  6. Jim Zavist says:

    The best thing any board can do is to give a superintendent a five-year (minimum) iron-clad contract and then give him or her reasonable and consistent direction on policy matters. The superintendent needs to be able to operate like a CEO, to create a budget he or she can live with and to negotiate with the various employee groups without arbitrary board interference. It takes any outsider six months to “get up to speed” and figure out where all the skeletons are buried. It takes at least two years for any new initiatives to “bear fruit”. It also takes a couple of years to shed the legacies of previous managers. The “revolving door” we have now just leaves everyone (teachers, administrators, parents and students) floundering – everyone is trying to hit an ever-changing target and it’s just three steps forward and two steps back! More time and less micro-management would go a long way in turning things around . . .

  7. Heather says:

    Yahoo & need to know,

    You have asked in several of the recent school debates if SLPS will provide vouchers for school age city children to attend county school.

    Why don’t you pick up a phone and call 345-2283 which is the Office of Public Information. Someone there should be able to answer your questions or refer you to someone who can. You should ask someone who is directly involved instead of those who would know second hand.

  8. Katie Wessling says:

    Need to know,

    Any child who lives in the city is eligible to attend the public schools, so yes, kids currently in parochial or private schools could now jump back into the system and ask to go out to the county. But remember, the county schools don’t have to take the kids.

  9. maurice says:

    Steve thank you for posting your reader’s comments. He (or she) is right in that the board needs to step back and concentrate on policy and initiatives. To many times the public has seen the results of this micromanaging show up in failed test scores, facilities that have been neglected, patronage positions and contracts, disenfranchising the teachers, parents, students, and the community at large in the process.

    One of the reasons I decided to run was to get the board to return the focus on the children. Everyone says that and everyone has their own ideas of what is in the best interest of the children, but really, when was the last time opposing views sat down and hashed out a plan with a clear goal? Where both sides gave a little in order to bring education to the forefront. Even the logical Mr. Spock has said that the needs of the many(students) outweigh the needs of the few (personal agendas by leaders and some labor groups to name two).

    This city will never grow into its full potential as long as the schools are failing to educate. When a 6th grader cannot read beyond the 2nd level, these are signs of deep problems that only a stable board and stable administration can provide.

    We, as a community, cannot throw up our hands and run nor can we throw up barriers and say that the others’ plan won’t work. We need to all sit down at the table. That table must be representative of the community (even though some people think certain people or viewpoints should be excluded).

    Do any of the board members current, past, or future know what the mission and vision is of the school? (be a district of choice, world-class education, leader in student achievement and teacher quality)

    If we had quality schools, we would not be fighting amoungst ourselves as to the state takeover plan, whether charter schools should be allowed, disaccredidation issues, etc. So much time and resources are wasted in this manner. If we had quality schools, we would see the families coming into the city and not left to wonder how their kids are going to get an education. If we had quality schools…..so much is possible

    What I would like to see as a board member is that at every board meeting, there be open forums for dialogue (not the current limited open mic where whoever is speaking is ignored), and, AND where one school per meeting (no matter what type of school) is given 10 minutes to present to the board and the residents just what successes they are having, what challenges they are facing, where they need help, etc. 10 minutes…is that so much to ask so that everyone can get a sense of what is going on in the schools themselves?

    Maurice St. Pierre
    school board candidate

  10. bev says:

    Need to know, Yahoo and others –

    It is also my understanding that children in unaccredited districts can only go to *neighboring* districts. In other words, this isn’t a free ride out to Parkway or even closer in like Clayton. And like has been said, no district has to accept the students, not even a neighboring district.

  11. Becker says:

    I think the reader’s comment correctly reflect the fact that the school board as a whole and certain members in particular (Downs, O’Brien) seem to think that it is their job to run the school disctrict. Whereas there is a great deal of evidence to suggest that in the most successful school districts the school board merely hires and advises the superintendent.

    I am still a firm believer that Dr. Williams could have been successful if only the board majority at that time (the same anti-Slay group that will likely be strengthened in the coming election + O’Brien) had only let him work instead of pulling rank on him.

    Yet Slay is criticized for suggesting that the superintedent should be granted more autonomy from the board. Why is that?

    It is my hope that the state appointed board allows the superintendent (whether it be the current one or a new person) run the show from an academic standpoint. I do believe that they will be smart enough to recognize that they are not educators and like most smart businessmen hire expertise where they are lacking.

    In the end, the most recent problems with the board all revolve around the current board members having political axes to grind that are more important to them than the children. Everything has to be about employment and outsourcing and North vs South.

    Those issues may have validity (and may not) but they should never surpass the importance of educating those kids. The SLPS is a district that has “personal finance” classes that consist of showing the students how to apply for food stamps. (Not making that up, Dr. Williams said it in the Post, look it up.) This is a disgrace that needs to stop at any cost.

    The state politicains may be taking over but the local politicians are the problem so it seems like an upgrade to me.

    [UrbanReviewSTL — I tend to agree with your view of how the anti-Slay group has behaved within the last 10-11 months.  However, that does not explain how our accreditation scores over the last 3-4 years (under pro-Slay control) continued to drop.  We cannot blame Downs & Jones, elected about a year ago, for the drop in accreditation before they arrived on the board.  As I see it we’ve got plenty of blame to spread over all involved in the last 3-4 years.]

  12. Jim Zavist says:

    This school board, like every other elected or appointed board, has four charges – to hire a superintendent / general manager / CEO, to approve the budget, to set policy and to define goals / measurements of success. Their primary role is to act as surrogates for every taxpayer, to make sure our tax dollars are spent wisely, to get the most “bang for the buck” for the entire community. Implicit in that charge is that our children need to receive a good education. Anyone with a narrow, specific agenda needs to be suspect, whether they’re a parent, union member, christian conservative or a libertarian. These positions don’t disqualify them from service – anyone competent enough to be an effective board member will have both opinions and perspectives – but a narrow focus should. There are plenty of advocates “on the other side of the table” for each of these agendas. The board needs to balance these, at times, conflicting goals with a finite budget. (And as I understand it, SLPS spends more money, per student, than most other districts in the state, so the budget / having “limited resources” should not be viewed as a part of the “problem”.) The best boards focus on the “big picture” and avoid micromanagement.

    As for best practices, the Clayton school district appears to be admired around here. I went to their website, http://www.clayton.k12.mo.us/ and it appears to outline a clear direction that, when implemented, results in outcomes that “work”:

    “The School Board of Education performs these basic functions in the management of the School District:


    The School Board shall exercise full legislative rule and management authority for the District by adopting policy and directing all procedures necessary for the governance of District educational and administrative responsibilities.


    The School Board shall delegate to the Superintendent the responsibility of implementing all Board policy.


    The School Board shall determine the effectiveness of policy implementation through evaluation of school operations, practices and program outcomes. The achievement level of students shall be the guiding standard through which all success shall be measured.


    The School Board shall be responsible for the adoption of the annual budget, which will provide financial basis for personnel, facilities, materials and equipment to enable the District to carry out its educational program.”

    In addition, it’s pretty clear about limiting micromanagement and conflicts of interest by board members: https://www.boarddocs.com/mo/sdclay/Board.nsf/Public?OpenFrameSet

  13. Jim Zavist says:

    Not being a parent, I don’t know how much weight this view will carry . . . What makes so many parents think that they’re “experts” on the best way to educate their children? I understand parents wanting their children to succeed and wanting them to receive the best education possible, but I don’t understand the need to “tell” administrators and teachers how to do their jobs. I see little need “to facilitate the dialogue between each parent and school management. If a parent could not make progress on their own to resolve an issue or could not understand how to assist their children on a matter, then the board member could be turned to for following through on the issue, acting as an advocate for the parent but also to help communications and provide assistance on educational and parental topics . . .” This is exactly why the SLPS is such a mess. Too much time is spent talking about “how” to educate, at the expense of actually educating. Responding to individual requests for information, whether it’s from parents or board members, takes time, probably a lot time more than most people realize, and is a classic case of micro-management. Multiply that by 25 or 30 kids in a classroom, and it’s no wonder that teachers are stressed and the quality of both teachers and teaching is declining . . .

  14. Becker says:

    Just to clairify, I never meant to imply that Downs and the rest of the anti-Slay group (and O’Brien we cannot forget her) ruined the SLPS. They simply took an already very bad situation and found a way to make it worse.

    These people are power hungry idealogues at best and incompetent at worst (though to be fair, I think Jackson and Archibald are doing their best in a terrible situation) and those who fight for them to still lead this district have the wrong priorities in my view.

  15. LisaS says:

    Just so everybody knows, there will be a Saint Louis School Board Candidate Forum moderated By The League Of Woman Voters at Kennard Classical Junior Academy Gifted Magnet School Saturday night (March 31st, this weekend) at 7:00 pm, sponsored by the school’s Parent Teacher Organization.

    Kennard is located at 5031 Potomac between Hereford and Brannon
    (two blocks east of Uncle Bill’s on Kingshighway, best accessed from Fyler/Brannon or Oleatha/Brannon)

    Questions welcome. Free childcare provided.

  16. Jim Zavist says:

    I went to the LWV forum Saturday (Thanks, Lisa, for the heads up), along with my wife. The event started off with two candidates and one surrogate present, and ended with four of the six candidates present (Maurice – where were you?!). The good news is that the event was well run and the questions were both pertinent and a bit probing. The bad news was that there were few voters present (less than a dozen) who were not affiliated with one of the candidates. My take is that all of the candidates are either adequately or well qualified to serve and that all would pass the “sanity” test. Since I don’t know much about any of the candidates other than these first impressions, I’m not going to make any recommendations, but by going, it allowed both my wife and I to become a lot more informed and to narrow down our choices. Unfortunately, this is just another example of why it’s hard to see any real change happening around here – apathy equals the outcomes we deserve . . .

  17. radical idea says:

    Regarding transferring students to county schools–

    Oakland has a program where the amount of money that travels with the student is not equal, i.e. a student from a one parent home who gets free/subsidized lunch, would get more money than a student from a two parent college educated home.

    Depending on the levels, it would have schools compete for the students. The receiving district would have to decide whether it is worth it to take the less desirable child, but get more money, rather than the more desirable child for less money. Parents could then choose which competing school is best.

    There are problems, but it is an acknowledgment that all kids are not equally easy/hard to educate.

    It won’t happen soon, but reading what the new “CEO” Sullivan has done in the past, don’t be surprised if something like it comes here.


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