Tuesday, January 10, 2017

St Louis Public School Politics: Update on schoolboard issues and upcoming elections by Susan Turk, St Louis Schools Watch

--- St. Louis Schools Watch
By Susan Turk

It’s School Board Election Time Again!
January 9, 2017

Filing began for the April, 4, 2017 St. Louis Board of Education election on December 13th. Filing ends next Tuesday, January 17 at 5 p.m.

Three seats are contested this election.  They are currently held by Susan Jones, William (Bill) Monroe and Kathy Styer.  Jones and Styer have announced that they are not running for re-election.  Monroe is.

As of now, six candidates have filed to run for the three seats.  They are, in the order they filed, Bill Monroe, Natalie Vowell, David Jackson, Dorothy Rohde Collins, Brian Wallner and James Reece.

The outcome of this election may determine whether the elected board is returned to authority to run the district.  At long last after ten years of the SLPS being governed by an appointed Special Administrative Board, DESE has recommended that the state board of education return the SLPS to full accreditation.  The state board is very likely to consider doing so today at their January 10, 2017 meeting.  There is no connection in state law between regaining accreditation and returning governance to the elected board of education. Indeed, the sunset of governance by an SAB is entirely left to the discretion of the state board of education.

A committee was formed by the state board to begin discussing a process for transitioning authority back to the elected board in July of 2016. That discussion was abandoned by the state board in August when Board Member Monroe refused to accept not being chosen to represent the elected board at those preliminary meetings.  It has been made clear that the future of a transition process depends on the outcome of this April’s school board election. 

 If Board Member Monroe is re-elected, transition discussions will not happen until such time as he is no longer a member of the board.

The state board, unfairly in the opinion of this writer, wants to return authority to the elected board on the condition that it is not operating in what they consider to be a dysfunctional manner.  One board member’s inappropriate behavior is holding the entire board hostage. That said, the state board’s discretion is theirs alone.  Unless political pressure can be applied by the community that would change their minds, they are at liberty to set whatever conditions they may.

Over the last ten years, the community has at times been able to influence the state board in small ways, but has not been able to demonstrate the critical mass to apply sufficient clout to motivate the state board to return democratic governance of the SLPS to the St. Louis City electorate.

With the retirement of St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay in April, the SLPS is losing a major adversary on the political front.  Whether any of the dozen candidates running to replace him would advocate for returning the elected board to authority is something voters should explore at mayoral candidate forums.

In the meantime, filling the three seats on the board of education with candidates who have the demeanor to wisely carry out their duties should be the community's goal.  A good election outcome could actually lead to the elected board being returned to governance.
If only we had such candidates!

Aside from current Board Member Monroe who is running for re-election, David Jackson served on the board for two terms from 2007 to 2015. He lost re-election to a third term by coming in third for the two seats contested that year. Jackson’s tenure on the board was marred by his at times erratic and embarrassing behavior.  Jackson insisted on running for president of the board as soon as he was elected to a seat in 2007.  That put him in competition with Board Member Peter Downs who had been elected the previous year and had been advised to wait a year and gain experience as a member before running for president.  Jackson threatened to resign three weeks after his election if he were not promised the presidency.  That created a crisis on the board because Mayor Slay would have been able to appoint Jackson’s replacement. Negotiations with Jackson satisfied his ambition by promising him the vice presidency of the board if he waited a year.  Having a leadership title was vitally important to him.

Jackson was eventually elected to the presidency of the board in 2013.  Once he gained the title he coveted, he always introduced himself as president of the board when speaking in public even when not representing the board in an official capacity. Some of those pubic speeches were public relations disasters.  Perhaps the most notable was public comments Jackson made at the annual Metropolitan Congregations United education forum on November 1, 2014 at St. John’s United Church of Christ on North Grand Blvd.  For some reason Jackson felt moved to speak about Michael Brown, who had no relationship with SLPS.  Jackson remarked that Brown had not graduated from Normandy HS with a regular academic diploma and that the incident which led to his death was not the first time he had committed a theft of cigarillos. Audience members, incensed by his disparagement of Brown, began remonstrating against Jackson so loudly that his further words were drowned out. Had Jackson made his remarks as a private person, this writer would not be concerned, but as was his custom, he began his comments by introducing himself as the president of the board of education. He was not representing the board in an official capacity at the gathering. That did not stop him from disgracing himself and the board.

This is Natalie Vowell’s second run for a seat on the board.  She previously ran in 2015 and lost.  She was the 4th highest vote getter of six candidates who ran.  Vowell is a determined young woman with political ambitions. She ran for state rep in the 78th district in 2014 but was removed from the ballot for not meeting a requirement for the office.  She had not been registered to vote in Missouri for two years prior to filing.  Her husband, Robert (Sternberg) Vroman, has served as chairman of the city Republican committee and has run for state rep of the 79th house district and city sheriff as a republican and her campaign treasurer or assistant treasurer for three of her four campaign committees, Eric Shelquist, has run for recorder of deeds, state rep and for president of the board of aldermen as a republican. Last fall he ran as the republican candidate for state rep against Bruce Franks.

So Vowell is surrounded by a circle of close associates with political ambitions.   Last year Vowell was selected as a Bernie Sanders delegate to the democratic national convention from Missouri.  When Sanders lost to Hillary Clinton, Vowell returned to St. Louis and did what she could to soften support for Clinton by claiming she could never vote for her.  Given her close association with activist republicans, Vowell’s allegiance to the democratic party has been questioned.  Since the board of education is a non-partisan body her political inclinations are of no consequence. However, the board of education already has one member who frequently runs for office. It does not need another member for whom a seat on the board of education would be considered a political stepping stone.

During her 2015 school board campaign, Vowell advocated lowering property taxes in the city as a means of collecting more revenue for the schools.  She adheres to supply side economic theory, which has been debunked.  Lowering taxes does not increase revenue, but supply side economics is popular among republicans. The SLPS needs more revenue, not less.  Vowell would not be an asset to the board.

Then there are three candidates who have not previously run for the board, Dorothy Rohde Collins, Brian Wallner and James Reece.

Rohde Collins is a former SLPS high school science teacher.  She taught at Northwest HS for six years.  Next fall her son will enter kindergarten in the SLPS.  As a former teacher and a parent, she looks like a promising candidate.   She knows the district from an employee’s point of view.  She will know it from a parent’s. Rohde Collins will be an advocate for parents and teachers if she is elected to the board. She also plans to work to increase enrollment.

Brian Wallner appears to be an idealistic citizen who is concerned about the perception of the SLPS.  He wants to change the image of the district so that it becomes more attractive to parents. From discussion with friends who have children in the SLPS he is aware that technology is an area of need. He wants to improve the district’s resources to improve their ability to compete for students. He understands that increasing enrollment will provide much needed revenue to the district.

James Reece is the parent of a student at Vashon High School. Reece addressed the SAB during public comments at their October 20, 2016 meeting to express concern about conditions at Vashon. He questioned whether the students were being prepared for college.  His son plans to attend college and the lack of adequate rigor at Vashon troubles him.  But Reece spoke as a parent advocate concerned not just for his own child but for all SLPS students.  His eloquence and his deep-hearted concerns were impressive.

These last three candidates might be what we need to fill board seats with people who would inspire the state board to have the confidence to return governance to the elected board.  They appear to be people who are concerned about the needs of students rather than their own personal ambitions.

There are usually a few unexpected candidates who file on the last day.  It would be surprising if Civic Progress and the RGCA are not working to find candidates to file.  There are plenty of naïve, well-meaning but corporate reform friendly Teach for America alumni for them to mine.

Filing is open until next Tuesday, January 17 at 5 p.m.  Next Monday is King Day and the board of election commissioners will be closed that day. If you know of anyone you think would make a good board member, please encourage them to file.  There is a $100 filing fee.