How the Transitional School Board Can Succeed in Saint Louis
The face of public education in Saint Louis is changing. Although court challenges continue, the city’s school board has become superseded by a new transitional board appointed by Gov. Matt Blunt, Mayor Francis Slay, and Lewis Reed, president of the Board of Aldermen. It’s a change that makes sense: During the past four years, the city’s school board has devolved into a group where members attack both each other and those who criticize them for failing to do the job they were elected to do. This bickering has taken focus off of the school district’s worsening financial situation and declining student achievement. The new transitional school board should keep a few things in mind if it wants to avoid the same problems created by the elected board.
First: Do the job you were created to do. The transitional school board’s primary focus is to stabilize the district’s governance and finances. The elected board had tried to micromanage the day-to-day operations of the school district — a job that should be left to the superintendent, who is responsible for implementing district policies and regulations, and developing the educational plans of the district. This role is filled better by one person than by a panel filled with people who have conflicting goals, and who can’t be present every day to make sure the district is running smoothly. When elected officials misunderstand the school board’s proper place in public education, a power struggle can form between the board and the district administrators — with both groups trying to maintain a greater amount of control over the district. If the transitional school board wants to succeed where past boards have failed, it should leave education to the superintendent and the administration, focusing instead on the finances.
Two: Be more open. The previous school board made many decisions behind closed doors, ranging from firing Creg Williams and hiring Diana Bourisaw to making decisions that have damaged the financial integrity of the district. Saint Louisans are tired of decisions being made in this fashion, with little involvement from the general community. The transitional board must be open to the public, reaching out to parties who will work together to find solutions to the problems facing the district. This would help to allay the suspicion many people in the district feel toward the transitional team.
Three: Work with people. The previous school board chose who it would deal with based on individual support for its measures. In this process, it ignored or disparaged people who stood opposed to measures the board supported. The transitional board will need to bring together a fragmented community filled with people who have turned against each other because of the actions of the last school board. In turn, people angered by the state takeover will need to work with the transitional board to get things accomplished. All segments of the community have valuable insights to contribute, and during the last four years the school board has not often listened to them.
Instead of demonizing the new board, the community should see this as a truly clean slate. Now is the time to put aside grudges and work on a plan to put this district back on track. As every Saint Louis Public Schools superintendent and board member has said for the past four years, we need to make the best decision for the children.
Maurice Harris is an intern at the Show-Me Institute, a free-market think tank based in Clayton. He is currently studying political science and history at Knox College.