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Who Represents Us?

A Guest Editorial by Jim Zavist, AIA

With the recent changes at the School Board, I wanted to raise the following fundamental question – who do (or should) our politicians represent? Do they represent the people who nominated or appointed them, the people who funded their campaign, the people who voted for them and/or everyone in their district, ward, area or city? It seems like a simple question, but many times actions speak louder than words. And, having done time as both an appointed and an elected politician, I can vouch that it’s not an easy answer.

The “old”, elected School Board had one or more members with close ties to the teacher’s union. The old Board also had an appointed member who obviously split ways from the mayor (who appointed her). The “new”, appointed Board is being portrayed, negatively, as somehow more removed from the issues facing our schools. Is it better or worse? I don’t know, yet.

My own experience is that my actions and reactions changed as my constituency broadened and the role of the various organizations changed. In Denver, in the late ’80’s, I became active in a neighborhood organization, rising quickly to president. One issue facing us was a new light rail line. My personal, libertarian bent was that it would be highly subsidized and shouldn’t be built. The voters disagreed and it was built.

In the late ’90’s, a vacancy occurred on the transit district’s elected board. Denver’s mayor appointed me to fill the balance of the term. I changed my focus from a very-local, neighborhood perspective to a regional perspective. I made the commitment that my role was to make the system the best it could be and not to try and “destroy it from within” as some previous board members had attempted. I also tried to be responsive to constituent comments and concerns, especially individually-generated ones, and not so responsive to petitions and multiple, identical post cards and emails.

Which gets me back to both the St. Louis School Board and the Board of Aldermen. Who do they actually represent? Who “has their ear” and exerts the greatest influence in their decisions? Is it the Democratic “machine” and the ward committee people? The various unions and their political-action committees? The Mayor, Governor and President of the Board of Aldermen? Those parts of town that voted heavily for them (and not those parts that didn’t)? The major corporations and donors that funded their campaign? Every citizen who personally contacts them? Only those citizens that actually reside in “their” ward or live in the city? The politician’s own vision, education and close circle of friends?

I know, I know, everyone is different. That’s the beauty of “representative” government. But when the representative sample becomes too small and/or too closed, more and more people become disenfranchised and excluded from what should be a very public and inclusive process. And, yes, we can always get worked up and “throw the rascals out”, but that rarely happens, and even when it does, you still need to overcome institutional inertia. So two final questions – do the systems (and the people) we have now, work (well enough)? And if not, what should change and how should we get that change started?

Local architect Jim Zavist was born in upstate New York, raised in Louisville KY, spent 30 years in Denver Colorado and relocated to St. Louis in 2005.


The New Role of the Elected St. Louis School Board

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?


Sound Off on St. Louis Public Schools

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.


Steve Jobs on Education: Technology & Teacher’s Unions

March 17, 2007 Education 19 Comments

Steve Jobs, the charismatic co-founder & CEO of Apple, Inc. is considered by many to be pretty liberal, with healthy contributions to democratic candidats. Al “Inconvenient Truth” Gore is on Apple’s board of directors. Jobs, a self-made man, is ranked #132 on Forbes’ recent list of world billionaires with an estimated $5.7 billion to his name, not bad for a college dropout.

Jobs spoke last month at an education reform conference in Austin Tx, from an AP story:

Jobs told the crowd about his vision for textbook-free schools in the future. Textbooks would be replaced with a free, online information source that was constantly updated by experts, much like the online encyclopedia Wikipedia.

“I think we’d have far more current material available to our students, and we’d be freeing up a tremendous amount of funds that we could buy delivery vehicles with — computers, faster Internet, things like that,” Jobs said. “And I also think we’d get some of the best minds in the country contributing.”

But Jobs is not one of those that thinks technology alone will solve our educational problems, from the same article:

Apple Inc. CEO Steve Jobs lambasted teacher unions today, claiming no amount of technology in the classroom would improve public schools until principals could fire bad teachers.

“What kind of person could you get to run a small business if you told them that when they came in they couldn’t get rid of people that they thought weren’t any good? Not really great ones because if you’re really smart you go, ‘I can’t win.

“I believe that what is wrong with our schools in this nation is that they have become unionized in the worst possible way. This unionization and lifetime employment of K-12 teachers is off-the-charts crazy.

Ouch, not exactly towing the liberal line here huh? As you might expect, Teacher’s unions all over the country have been critical of Jobs’ statement. But does he have a point?

Have unions become so big and so controlling that they themselves are the big bully in need of controlling? Unions originated to protect workers against tactics of managment but who will protect both the workers and management against the union bosses?


Veronica O’Brien Should Resign Effective Immediately

IMG_3776.jpg I’m done with St. Louis School Board President Veronica O’Brien. The school system has many differences of opinion and issues to resolve and her presence is only complicating matters. The school board president, in my view, should be the leader that all respect to help guide the district through the rough times. Veronica O’Brien is not that person.

So, I’m asking her to resign as President effective immediately. I’m asking all of you to do the same by signing an online petition I have created. Click here to read the petition, sign if you agree.

UPDATE 1/31/2007 @ 9:30am – I have verified that current SLPS VP Bill Purdy has signed the petition (#7).

UPDATE 1/31/2007 @ 1pm – Fox 2 has interviewed me regarding this issue, look for the story in the 5pm-6:30pm time slot. Also, just to clarify — I am asking that she resign as President of the board, not necessarily resigning from the board altogether. I belive we need one of the other members to step up and show leadership where Ms. O’Brien has not. Added image to post from press conference announcing Dr. Bourisaw as acting superintendent on July 17, 2006.

UPDATE 1/31/2007 @ 2:30pm — Further reading:

Suburban Journals:

PubDef Weekly: