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Lessons From The Takeover Of St. Louis Public Schools

Kansas City, Missouri school board members Crispin Rea, Airick Leonard West and Joseph Jackson.
Sylvia Maria Gross
Kansas City, Missouri school board members Crispin Rea, Airick Leonard West and Joseph Jackson.

By Sylvia Maria Gross


KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Last week, news surfaced that the Missouri Education Commissioner Chris Nicastro had proposed that the Kansas City, Missouri school board give up its power, in favor of an appointed board. If it didn't, the elected board might have its authority stripped by the state when it officially loses accreditation in January. School board president Airick Leonard West says the proposal caught board members off-guard.

"The feedback that we've consistently received from the state over the past year is that they believed in the plan that we had, that they were comfortable with our execution, and that, if given the time that they promised us, that they had confidence that we would be able to restore achievement in this district on behalf of our scholars," West said.

The history of the Kansas City, Missouri school board over the past few decades has been marked by internal fighting and micro-managing, leading to a revolving door of superintendents. But by most accounts, the school board has been healing itself over the past few years. Many decisions have been made unanimously, and a recent state audit , as well as reports from the Department of Education, indicate that there has been less meddling in administrative matters.

It's a far cry from the turmoil in the St. Louis school board, just before the state took over in 2007.

"Board meetings were always full of drama. There were times when one board member poured a pitcher of water on an administrator," says Elisa Crouch, the urban schools reporter with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. St. Louis's revolving door of superintendents was spinning even faster than Kansas City's - there had been six in four years.

In March of 2007, St. Louis Public Schools lost accreditation. The elected school board was stripped of its power, and a three-member "Special Administrative Board" was established. Members are appointed by the governor, the mayor of St. Louis, and the president of the St. Louis Board of Alderman.

In 2008, the administrative board hired Superintendent Kelvin Adams, who has stayed at the district's helm since then. He initiated a series of reforms, and, according to Crouch, there have been steady gains in scores on Missouri assessment tests, as well as gains in graduation rates and attendance.

Still, the St. Louis school district continues to lose students to charter schools and other districts. And it has yet to regain accreditation. This fall, St. Louis had only six of 13 points toward accreditation on its report card. (Kansas City's district earned three points this year.) Generally, districts need nine to be fully accredited.

Last year, the Missouri Board of Education decided to renew the term of the special administrative board in St. Louis. A second St. Louis-area district, Riverview Gardens also had a special administrative board take over last year.

Sylvia Maria Gross is storytelling editor at KCUR 89.3. Reach her on Twitter @pubradiosly.
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