Home » Education » Recent Articles:

More on Williams and the School Board

From MayorSlay.com yesterday:

Creg Williams gave St. Louis hope and a plan — and he takes those things with him. What is left in the wake of his departure is administrative chaos, mass defections, no real budget, a new (and largely unknown) superintendent, and dramatically lowered enrollment — with school to open in six weeks.

Wow, in 24 hours since his departure “administrative chaos, mass defections, no real budget… and dramatically lowered enrollment” have befallen the St. Louis Public Schools. Nice spin Richard Francis. And false.

The truth of the matter is the school system has been in chaos for years, perhaps decades. Just as in city planning & development, politics has been more important than the actual issues. In one day the board did not lower enrollment or create mass defections. The prior board and several before them along with many other factors created the situation we are in now.

I am not at all pleased with the erratic behavior of board President Veronica O’Brien nor do I like the way this new majority handled themselves and their business this week. But, I’ve not been happy with the other side(s) in the past few years either.

The Mayor and others claims Williams was our last hope and then says Bourisaw is largely unknown. It would seem many are jumping the gun a bit to assume she cannot come into the system and do as well or better than Williams may have. We do know, barring state takeover, that we’ll have this board majority for at least four years. Whether Williams went now or sometime in that four year period it was bound to happen as is usually the case when you have a change of power. The same thing happens in city government when we get a new mayor. Having a superintendent hired by the current majority is most likely the best way to get anything done. Williams and the board would have continued to butt heads.

Over the last few years I’ve given each board and superintendent the benefit of the doubt with regard to their intentions and plans. I ask that everyone take a deep breath and give the board and our new superintendent the same benefit for at least six months to a year. Without doing so we will only be condemning them to certain failure. No one, no matter how upset about this past week, should hope this board and superintendent fails — especially those who may benefit politically.

– Steve


Revolving Door at the St. Louis Schools Superintendent’s Office

Creg Williams is out after 15 months, Diana Bourisaw is in (per St. Louis Schools Watch & the Post-Dispatch). The block of Peter Downs, Donna Jones, Bill Purdy and Veronica O’Brien has used their majority vote to make big changes, replacing the superintendent hired by the previous board majority.

O’Brien is the hardest to figure out. We had a heated email exchange after I announced ahead of time they’d have a special meeting about Cleveland. She began the exchange by typing, as she is known to do, in all caps.

So they’ve fired Williams and other key staff of his and hired Diana Bourisaw to take his place. In the coming days and weeks we will certainly here about her shortcomings in other districts where she has worked. I will take it all with a grain of salt as she faces an uphill PR battle for being this board’s choice.

What is clear is this new board majority doesn’t have a clue how to fire someone and come out the hero. I don’t necessarily regret supporting Downs & Jones because I don’t think Clinksdale & Buford and the rest of their camp would have done much better. What we do know is the old majority would not have fired Williams so abruptly.

From the St. Louis Public Schools website:

The St. Louis Board of Education is composed of members elected at large by the voters of the City of St. Louis. School Board members serve without compensation. When vacancies occur between elections, the Mayor appoints a replacement to serve until the next Board election. The Board selects a president, vice president and secretary each June.

The School Board has the legal responsibility for the education of children from ages 5 to 21 who live within the city boundaries. It is a policy-making body with the primary function of establishing and monitoring rules, plans and procedures for the school system. The Board appoints a superintendent to manage its budget, supervise the staff and students, and make recommendations for the operations of the schools and support services.

Two seats will be up for grabs in April 2007. If I am not mistaken, these are held by the current minority of Dr. Bob Archibald and Ron Jackson. The third minority member, Flint Fowler, was elected in April 2005. What this means is even if Archibald & Jackson are re-elected (or someone else of similar views in their place) this will not change the majority position. We will have this majority for a while (April 2008 or 2009???).

What is needed most at this time is for citizens to have confidence in our schools. Tonight’s actions, possibly a good decision, was timed and handled very poorly. Williams time may well have been up but there is a right way and a wrong way to fire someone and this board F’d it up big time.

Time will tell if tonight’s actions were for the best or just another step downhill.

– Steve


St. Louis Schools In the Middle of Political Infighting

Will the soap opera that is the St. Louis Board of Education ever end? We’ve basically evolved into two opposite camps that both claim to be working in the best interests of the educational system yet I find it harder and harder to believe it. Much like Republicans and Democrats on the national level that back themselves into ideological corners, our school board members as well as others such as Mayor Slay continue to fight to defend positions and political turf.

I had high hopes for the school board when the majority changed from one camp to the other. I can see now that the camp supported by Mayor Slay is still able to inflict damage on the new majority, at least from a PR standpoint. Maybe it is the fault of the new majority — might they be as cold and calculating as the majority they replaced? This may well be par for the course.

When Downs & Jones were elected to the board and power shifted I did not expect them to just give into Superintendent Creg Williams. When I voted for this pair I wanted them to challenge and push Williams, not to make him leave but to work for a better school system. We all like to be challenged in our jobs. Without a challenge we have nothing to work towards and most often, we can do better.

Some say the board majority is micro-managing. Perhaps. If so, why? When Williams submitted his budget last month it was $4 million in the red with the full expectation we’d be $50 million in the red next year. When board members, expected to vote on a budget questioned expenses, Williams was not direct but was contentious (and yes, I was there). The four members of the board majority were doing their jobs when questioning why the budget was not balanced and looking at expenses to either justify deficit spending or ways to cut since the well-compensated first-time Superintendent failed to do so on his first budget.

Williams this week submitted a balanced budget. See, it was possible. The three dissenters on the board that were willing to pass the deficit increasing budget should be a little more than embarrassed for not going along with the other four to ask for a balanced budget. I expected the board to take fiscal responsibility of our tax dollars. If they cannot do that, they should resign.

A football basketball coach was effectively fired by the board this week as his department, as I understand it, was eliminated. Some are calling this a retaliatory act against coach Irons. Others say it was simply a way to send a message to Williams at the expense of Irons. The board says it was the responsible thing to do. Frankly, I don’t know that I care anymore.

No matter what actions, good or bad, the new board majority will take to correct the schools it will be spun to be an act to run out Williams or to give in to the teacher’s union or any other thing they think of to discredit the members. I’m certainly no stranger to spinning things as I am certainly opinionated on this site. However, I like to think I take an even approach to issues while still maintaining my urbanist values. The spin around the school board, possibly from both sides, is coming from different motivation. It is about defending political turf and discrediting the actions of your enemy. That my friends will not save our school system from ruins. Children, not Williams or coach Irons, are the victims here. In the big picture, we are all victims as not educating our youth will have long lasting effects on our region.

Had Clinksdale & Buford won the election rather than Down & Jones I don’t know that we’d be in any better position than we are today. We’d most likely have an approved budget that was in the red. We’d also have political fighting and energized board meetings. Either way I don’t really see us moving forward. I’m losing all confidence in Williams to show leadership in the face of adversity. If he cannot handle questions about a budget now how will he be next year when we face a $50 million deficit. If he is our best hope, we are in worse shape than I thought.

The best thing might be for the state to take over our schools. I don’t know the implications of that statement but I don’t see the new majority being able to accomplish anything if the mayor and Post-Dispatch are going to turn on them for every decision, regardless of merit.

The system is seriously broke. Financially and otherwise.

Our buildings are crumbling, our students population is decreasing and our costs seem to escalate. We do have some bright spots. Some of our schools have very high ratings in the region, state and nation. All those responsible should be pleased with their work. I’m not sure any credit should be given to this board, prior board or the current superintendent for these successes as this may have been coalescing for some time.

It would not surprise me if the teachers union was acting in their own interests, possibly protecting teachers and positions that should be eliminated. Nor would not surprise me if the Slay-board would have done things for political gain. We’ve gotten ourselves into this us vs. them situation and I don’t see a good solution to move past the political fights into thoughtful and reasoned solutions to the challenges facing our educational system.

Although the short-term embarrassment of having the state come in and take over the schools might painful it may well be the best long-term solution. If it were to happen, Williams should go out with the board. Start fresh all around. Leave none of the political fighters in place. Then, and only then, can we set about creating a sound educational system for the City of St. Louis.

– Steve


Carnahan School Gets New Sign, Remains Suburban

carnahan school - 2.jpgThis summer Carnahan Middle School is transforming into the Carnahan High School of the Future. At least the new sign being erected says it is the future of high schools. While I treasure our classic early 20th Century Ittner-designed schools I’m not so crazy about this 2003 version. It looks like any suburban school. The problem is, it is located at Broadway & Gasconade (map)— hardly suburbia.

The new sign being constructed is the first clue to passersby this is a school. Sure, by the looks, they might assume as much. But I don’t believe it has ever had a sign at the street. In fact, the whole places tends to ignore the street altogether. That is what rubs me the wrong way. Buildings, especially civic buildings, should embrace and celebrate the public street.

carnahan school - 3.jpgThis is the view presented to Broadway, one of the oldest routes in our region and along a major bus route. Sadly, an old streetcar storage & maintenance building was razed to construct this school. The old building, even though built for purely utilitarian means, did a wonderful job of relating to the street.

The current school is set back far from the street, much as you’d expect in places like Ballwin or St. Peters. The public sidewalk does run the length of Broadway and it is used often, including during the time I was taking pictures today. From the public sidewalk is another sidewalk which will eventually lead you to the building entrance. However, if you are standing at the intersection of these two sidewalks you cannot see the building’s entrance. With rare exception, a building’s entrance should be in close proximity to and visible from the primary public street.

The lush green lawn does little to benefit the urban streetscape along Broadway. With a nice small park to the immediate south the area did not need more open space. What it needed but didn’t get, is a building to reinforce the public realm of Broadway.

carnahan school - 4.jpgAccess to the entrance is assumed by car. You enter from Gasconade St. —- oh wait —- make that the former Gasconade St. since it was vacated and blocked off on the west end. The site, just a hair over 6 acres, has been poorly utilized. Bordered on three sides by public streets (now two public and one private), the building doesn’t relate to any of them.

Unless hidden somewhere, the school does not have any bike racks for students, parents, teachers or staff to use.

One of the more common urban theories, popularized by the late Jane Jacobs, is the more eyes you had watching a street the safer it was. Thus, having multiple entrances immediately off a public street would create many people watching your actions. School age kids, in those times, may have tried to get away with wrong-doings but it is harder to succeed in such acts when being watched by many.

Since opening Carnahan Middle School, named after Gov. Mel Carnahan killed in an October 2001 plane crash, has been problematic since day one. Good urban design can not turn all students into well behaved kids but bad urban design can assuredly support bad behavior.

The solution?

More than a new sign!

The building, just a few years old, probably should be razed as it does such a poor job of fitting into the city. However, I think it could mostly be retained as part of a wing off a new 2-3 story structure built along Broadway. This would allow for a proper entrance along Broadway where parents and buses could use the more than ample on-street parking spaces. I’d throw in a few bike racks along the public right of way so that people coming to the facility, perhaps even for a community meeting, will have a place to secure their bikes. This vision of mine, of course, will likely never happen.

Our schools need a lot of help. As we invest in new schools we need to stop and think about how that school relates to the general public. Great civic buildings from past generations are special for their design and detailing but also their connection to the street and subsequently to the adjacent neighborhood.

– Steve


St. Louis Public Schools are “Bankrupt”

St. Louis Public School CFO, Cedric Lews, last night indicated by deficit spending the system is technically bankrupt. His comment came during questioning from members of the board over the proposed budget for the upcoming fiscal year which begins on July 1, 2006.

At one point board member Bill Purdy asked questions about line item expenditures in the budget. He mentioned money for “deputy” superintendents of which we have none. He wondered why we have text books in three locations within the budget. This was all pulled from a “by location” report of the current budget which he had sitting on the table — a huge document.

Purdy’s focus with the location report was to look at possible cuts in the central office. Indicating we have less students and less teachers perhaps we should have less administrators in the central office. Purdy’s comments drew applause from the audience prompting board President Veronica O’Brien to bang the gavel and proclaim, “This is not a rock concert.”

She’s right, it was not a rock concert. However, it was entertaining in a sad sort of way. I may have to stop attending school board meetings just to keep from getting too jaded about the future of our schools and city. But O’Brien’s “rock concert” comment got me thinking. Perhaps we replace CFO Cedric Lewis with St. Louis native comedian Cedric the Entertainer? That guy is a funny. I bet he can make us laugh about the millions in the hole we are. And what if the board sold t-shirts, “I survived the St. Louis Public School Budget Debate: 2006.” Depending upon which faction you liked better you could get the board members to sign the shirt. Sadly, we can’t see enough shirts to overcome the deficits.

Superintendent Creg Williams had a very good response to Purdy’s questions on the line items in the budget. Well, sorta good. Williams indicated the line items used in the budget were established 5-10 years ago. Thus, line item names do not necessarily correspond with current titles. The budget is already the size of 2-3 phone books and on top of that we have line items that do not reflect our current system. When the board members don’t fully understand the budget they are expecting to pass how can we as mere citizens have any confidence.

On the issue of trimming the central office budget Williams said the administration could be completely eliminated and we’d still have a deficit, that it represents only 4% of the total budget.

Later Peter Downs asked about maintenance. A senior staff member from that department, I don’t recall his name, indicated the bulk of his maintenance budget was going to roof maintenance — something on the order of $3.1 million for this coming fiscal year. When asked if that was enough his response was a big no. It appears other building maintenance must take a back seat to roof repairs. This is logical as it does not good to do other maintenance only to have the roof leak.

I witness last night, during the hour or so I was there, a level of hostility among board members that was not encouraging. I supported Peter Downs and Donna Jones and I am glad they are there to ask questions that I know I certainly want answered. What is missing from all this is someone to rally the troops, pull everyone together and get us on solid footing.

I’m telling you, we need Cedric the Entertainer to conduct these meetings.

– Steve