By Susan Turk
April 4, 2015—St. Louis--All 5 of the candidates who are actively running for school board are aware of the challenges the SLPS faces trying to educate predominantly disadvantaged urban students and regain full accreditation. All of them sound good in their public appearances. Areas of emphasis distinguish them.
Charli Cooksey’s war chest has had a considerable impact on this election. The sheer volume of out of town money, especially that $30,000 check from LEE is unprecedented. Election Board staff related that not even aldermanic candidates see such large checks. Only the mayor and president of the board of aldermen have attracted such deep pockets. The half a million Civic Progress raised in their effort to control the school board 10 years ago was local corporate money after all and that money was contributed to a PAC which independently spent money on all of their candidates.
This unparalleled situation has required the Watch to carefully consider its recommendations for this election, because we believe it would be deeply unfortunate for Charli Cooksey to win a seat on the board of education. It would be unfortunate for several reasons. She is pro- charter schools, pro-SAB, pro-Teach for America and anti-raising public revenue. Plus, the unnamed in her campaign literature not-for-profit which she executive directs, inspireSTL, has recruited high performing students to leave the district for high school, lowering our graduation rates, persistence to college MAP points and end of course MAP scores, and thereby increasing the SLPS’s difficulty in regaining full accreditation. She has been working against the best interests of district for the past 5 years.
A memorandum of understanding she signed with the SLPS in December may refocus inspireSTL’s efforts to keeping those students in high performing SLPS high schools. But since its inception, inspireSTL has drained high achievers from SLPS. Half of the students inspireSTL recruited left the SLPS for schools such as Affton High School, Bayless High School, Cardinal Ritter College Preparatory High School, Christian Brothers College High School, De Smet Jesuit High School, Mary Institute and St. Louis Country Day School, Mehlville High School, Notre Dame High School, St. John Vianney High School, St. Louis University High School, Villa Duchesne and Oak Hill School and Whitfield School. “Half of our Scholars attend public schools within St. Louis city, and half attend private and parochial institutions in the area.” From http://inspirestl.org/placements
The 15th ward Democrats survey school board candidates. In response to one of their questions, Cooksey wrote, “I am deeply committed to protecting and preserving the sustainability of SLPS as long as it continues to improve and educate students. I believe more quality schools should open and more existing schools should continue to improve. Ideally, that would be through SLPS, but good charter schools are not the enemy, but instead, partners.” At the League of Women Voters/Local 420 candidate forum April 1 she said it was not clear charter school funding hurt the SLPS.
She predicates her continued support of the SLPS on its continuing to improve and educate students. We of the Watch believe school board candidate support for the SLPS should be unqualified. We consider charter schools to be competitors, not partners. They are draining resources from the SLPS and do not do a better job of educating comparable students.
Answering a 15th ward question about how she would promote the SLPS as a viable choice to parents, she responded, “The best tool to promote SLPS as a viable choice for parents is results.” If you drain the district of its better students, as she has been doing through her work for inspireSTL, you will have much more difficulty improving results.
In her own words from the Watch candidate survey, “I respect and admire the service of the SAB”
Cooksey appears to be an advocate for corporate school reform. The financial support she has received from Washington D.C. and New York demonstrates that outside forces with a national school reform agenda are bankrolling her. If she wins, we can expect more candidates of this nature in the next few elections until the community most invested in our schools again loses influence over the governance of the SLPS. If the elected board regains its authority to govern our schools but it is peopled with candidates like Cooksey, we will be back where we were before parents began running for and winning board elections a decade ago.
Moving on to Natalie Vowell, in her campaign literature she states, “Since moving to St. Louis in 2010, I have worked on the front lines of education and poverty issues in our City,…”
When Vowell was running for 78th district state representative in May, 2014 I attempted to engage her in a discussion of education issues. She did not have opinions or an understanding of major issues facing our public schools last May. I tried to engage her in conversation about education issues again in January 2015 after learning that she had filed to run for school board. In January, she could not answer questions about charter schools, accreditation or the SAB. I came to the conclusion that wherever she had been on education issues during the past 4 years, it was not the front lines.
Since that time, she has been doing her homework and can now speak convincingly about education issues. She understands the challenges. She is appalled by the social injustice that has created the problems in our schools. However, she is new to the battlefield and she misunderstands some things.
In her response to a question on the 15th ward website on charter schools she writes,
“Perhaps it is time for SLPS administration to reach out to the charter school community and adopt some of the policies and practices that seem to be most pertinent to charter school success—particularly those charters who are able to serve our impoverished population”
Vowel does not know that students in charters and students who applied to charters but did not get in demonstrate the same level of academic performance. Charters do not improve academic performance. Very few charters out-perform public schools. The ones that do tend to have more affluent students or get signed agreements from parents and students to commit to longer schools hours and days which public schools cannot require of their students and parents. Most charter schools serving high poverty populations are performing at the same or worse levels than public schools. Also, she seems unaware that charters do not serve as many children with disabilities and especially severe disabilities so their classrooms are not as affected by legally required mainstreaming as is the SLPS, nor are there as many ESOL or homeless children in charters. She does not understand that the KIPP schools cream students by requiring them and their parents to sign contracts. The SLPS cannot require contracts from all of their students. The field of competition between the SLPS and the charters is not level. She also did not understand that charter schools are entitled to a portion of all funding received by the SLPS, including local sales tax and property taxes.
Vowel is one of those who does not understand what tenure means and does not support it. Tenure provides teachers with due process to prevent arbitrary terminations. It does not ensure perpetual employment.
At the LWV/Local420 sponsored forum Vowell said that most of public schools funding came from state and federal government and that this should stop. This is neither true nor wise. The SLPS budgets from the 2012-13 and 2013-14 fiscal years show that federal and state funding amounted to only about a third of the district’s revenue. Most of city public school revenue comes from property taxes. She misunderstands school funding. Her understanding may have been affected by her political views. She attributes the loss of population and home ownership in the city to high property tax rates. That is an extremely simplistic explanation for a complex problem.
Vowell also thinks there is money to be saved from cutting administrative bloat in the SLPS. She is ignorant of the way the administration has been cut to the bone during the past 10 years of the SLPS being run like a business. Were the SLPS to stop accepting funding from the state and federal government, it would have to raise property tax rates to make up for the loss just to get to current inadequate levels of funding. Moreover, Vowell appears to be unaware that it is our reliance on property taxes to fund public education that is the chief cause of inequity in our public schools. Vowell’s dream of lower property tax rates is not only impractical, it is impossible.
It is possible that at some point in the future, Vowell might be an asset to the elected board. At this time, she is the least experienced and the least qualified candidate running. She would benefit from more than a few months study of the issues. That she ran for state rep last year and is currently running for school board demonstrates that she has political ambitions. Running will build her name recognition. It would not be surprising were we to find her running for office again in the near future.
Joey Hollins is a retired firefighter currently working in License Collector Mavis Thompson’s office. Shortly after filing to run in this election, he decided to pull out and remove his name from the ballot. He did not follow through however and decided to re-enter the race in early March. Although he has made some campaign appearances and gained a few endorsements, he has declined to respond to the 15th ward candidate survey, the Post-Dispatch Voter Guide or the Watch candidate survey. He did request that the Watch survey be resent to him last weekend because he had lost it among his emails. The editor, however, felt it was unfair to the other candidates for him to be given the extra time and be able to respond to the questions after having seen how they responded, so we did not comply with his request.
As an alumnus of the SLPS who went on to a successful career and whose children graduated from the SLPS, Hollins understands the district. He emphasizes the need for early childhood education and concentration on literacy. He has devoted volunteer time to working with at risk youth and has been active in a community based committee which has been successful in advocating for the re-opening of L’Ouverture Middle School. However, his lackadaisical attitude towards campaigning has made it extremely unlikely that he could win a seat on the board in this election. He could, however, take votes away from the people who should win, making it possible others, who shouldn’t, to prevail. It is our hope that Hollins will run for the board in the future and devote time to a campaign that would result in victory. He has missed too many campaign opportunities to be successful this time.
That leaves incumbents, David Jackson and Katie Wessling, both of whom still have children attending SLPS.
On the 15th ward’s questionnaire Jackson wrote,
“As it stands now, I believe the District needs time and resources to continue in educating its children to the best of its ability. Adding more Charter Schools in the City really diminishes these efforts.” Jackson made a forceful statement opposing charter at the LWV/Local 420 forum Wednesday night. He has evolved on this issue. Jackson also bravely defended the importance of property tax revenue to the district against Natalie Vowell’s advocacy for lowering the tax rate. Jackson even suggested putting an increase in the rate to a public vote because city voters have always voted to support the SLPS’s financial needs. He has been a problematic board member at times. The Watch has been deeply concerned about his leadership of the board at times. But Jackson has gained the respect of a majority of board members. He should be re-elected.
Katie Wessling , quoted from the 15th ward questionnaire wrote,
“None of the non-incumbent candidates in this election have been involved in SLPS affairs over these last years. I have not seen any of them at our Board meetings, ever. I have not heard their names in connection with SLPS. They do not, to my knowledge, have children in SLPS. I think at this crucial time, as the time to transition back to the Elected Board is hopefully coming, it would be unfortunate to lose Board Members who have been active members preparing for transition and have had leadership roles in doing so and to replace them with people who, while having the best of intentions I am sure, are not “up to speed” with the current state of the Board, the history that got us to this place, or transition plans which have been carefully honed over the past few years. They may someday make wonderful board members, but right now, none of them are ready.”
“Though we cannot govern, we can still advocate, and we can prepare for transition. In other cities where citizens have been disenfranchised by removal of an elected board, and then it is returned to them, the ability of the Board to effectively return to governance correlates with the fact that a Board continued to exist and remain engaged in district affairs throughout the period of disenfranchisement. A sudden transition to a group of people who have not been involved and are not “up to speed” is a recipe for failure.”
Katie Wessling succinctly makes the case for her and David Jackson’s re-election. The Watch endorses them.
Please vote Tuesday and please ask everyone you know to vote. This is a crucial election for the SLPS.
About Cooksey’s Finance Reports.
April 4, 2015—St. Louis--I returned to the Board of Election Commissioners April 2nd. Cooksey had filed an amended report earlier in the day. The 8 day report she filed on March 30th was full of mistakes. She did not file a statement of committee organization until March 6 so she did not have to file a 40 day before the election report. However on the 8 day before the election report she filed on March 30 she reports $24,907.82 in receipts on line 1 as having been previously reported. In the amended report she filed on April 2 that line correctly reports zeros. The $24,907 was the total of her incurred debt and her disbursements. She mistakenly added her receipts and her debts and disbursements and reported that as total receipts of $63,104.82 on line 9. Her total receipts are actually $38,197.00.
She is acting as her own treasurer. This is highly unusual in a campaign. Given the mistakes she has made in reporting one can see that it was not the best use of her talents. At the April 1st candidate forum, she claimed to be an expert on finances. Her difficulties filling out campaign finance reports calls that expertise into question.
She has a total of 12 itemized donors listed providing checks of over $50 which must be itemized including that $30,000 check from Leadership for Educational Equity. The 4 out of town donors, including LEE and Bloomberg contributed $31,400 of the total. Eight checks from in town donors added up to $3,525.00. The difference of $3,272 is probably small donation which need not be itemized.
Her report summaries are in the attachments below.