I have served on the St. Louis Public School Board for almost five months. This volunteer position has taken up almost every minute of my free time and my not-so-free time as I have taken off work to get acclimated, read, study and learn about this large organization. St. Louis Public Schools (SLPS) is the second largest publicly funded entity, after the state of Missouri. The annual budget of $553 million surpasses the City of St. Louis' budget by 200 million. SLPS has more than 6,500 employees and serves 46,000 students.
When I ran as a candidate for the board, I had several years of first-hand experience in the public schools with children my husband and I cared for. I also had the opportunity to serve on a school-based management committee. I learned quickly that the schools lacked resources and lacked properly certified teachers: on some days there was no teacher at all in the classroom. I was stymied by the chasm that existed in the levels of professionalism between principals and the lack of support they received from downtown. It is difficult, if not impossible, for principals to order and receive supplies. And most appalling was the lack of proper library resources and no computer technology for teachers and students.
I ran on a reform slate with fellow board member Rochell Moore, who also has had similar experiences with SLPS. Her experience came from serving on a Community Council associated with the Community Education Center at Stevens School. Together we campaigned on a reform platform, taking our message all over the City of St. Louis. The message hit the right chord everywhere we went. I won as the candidate with the most votes, and won in 27 out of 28 wards in the city. So now, I believe we have a mandate to develop remedies and solutions for a school system that is in crisis.
If I were asked to list the five most serious problems that characterize the state of affairs in SLPS it wouldn't be difficult. (There are more than five serious problems, so selecting just five would be easy.) They would be:
- A rubber stamp school board
- The lack of leadership from the superintendent
- The lack of a system that is driven by accountability
- The complete denial of the current crisis in academic achievement
- An organizational structure whereby all authority is protected at the top (the superintendent) and no one has the authority to carry out the job responsibilities they have, which leads to a serious morale problem
Before I describe these problem areas, let me list the positive aspects of what exists in the system.
- Thousands of talented personnel
- Thousands of dedicated teachers
- Innovation, knowledge and research-based thinking by staff
- A clear vision by staff of where the district should be
- A genuine desire by staff to perform at an exemplary level the job they are assigned to do
The first serious problem is the rubber stamp board. Without going into detail and without making this a personal attack on any one board member, one can make this determination by reviewing the minutes of the past years to see how this board votes. An 80-item consent agenda that involves spending millions of dollars will be passed with one motion, no discussion and often-unanimous votes (not any longer). The way in which the FY 2002 budget was reviewed and approved (see minutes from July 5, 2001 meeting) took five minutes, and denied myself, Rochell Moore and Bill Haas the opportunity to discuss any aspects of the four documents and 2,000 pages of expenditures. Basically, a $553 million budget was passed without review by the entity the state statutes say is responsible.
The second serious problem with SLPS is the lack of leadership. Again, without taking personal pot shots at the superintendent, let me say this. If anyone has read any of the many books on the market about leadership, immediately one knows that part of being a good leader is empowering those around you. Staff at SLPS have been given a directive not to talk with Ms. Moore and myself, and many staff feel threatened by this directive, to the point of losing their jobs if they do not comply. Other than employees protected by the union, all other staff at SLPS can be fired without cause. They have no appeal rights or grievance procedures. The superintendent withholds information from Board members and makes it next to impossible for board members to obtain public documents. The superintendent uses stall tactics and constantly misrepresents the facts when asked direct questions. He can not delegate responsibilities, and personally supervises the 114 principals in the system, which basically means no supervision at all for these employees. Another example of lack of leadership is the failure for organizational planning. When I came on the board, SLPS had already begun its $80 million air conditioning project. When I asked for the plan of how this was going to be implemented over the next four years, I learned there was no plan. And not just that: four board members argued that we didn't need such a plan.
The lack of accountability is so glaring throughout the system. Let's just take as an example how SLPS contracts for services. The board has been presented with a contract for an architect to review and perform design work on various schools for an amount of $633,000. When the questions were asked "what schools?" and "how many?," the board was denied that information. Another example, and believe me there are hundreds, is the staff person in charge of a program called the 9th Grade Initiative. This program falls under the purview of his responsibilities. Yet the staff who work in this program report to nine other staff. Principals have no target for achievement levels, there are no targets for attendance levels, and no one is held accountable for reducing the dropout rate. These are examples of the lack of accountability and also the organizational structure disconnect. SLPS has no grievance procedure for parents to make complaints. SLPS has two academic years to reach performance levels required by the state in order to become accredited. We have had three years go by where SLPS had to meet specific state requirements. But no one was responsible for this, except the superintendent who did nothing towards the end of getting our school system accredited. Let me take that back he did do one thing: he came up with a slogan, "Destination Accreditation." I fear this slogan will go the way of the slogan developed to promote attendance, "Be There." As described in a recent St. Louis Post-Dispatch article, in 11 years the average attendance has only improved by .03 percent. Now it is too late to meet the accreditation standard for attendance. And to this day there is no real program in place with strategies and expected outcomes to address the attendance problem. The failure due to a lack of accountability falls not just on the back of the superintendent, but rests with the board.
The fourth serious problem, as I see it, is the failure of the board and the superintendent to face the academic and operational crisis. Many middle managers also share this denial; some realize it, but are not empowered to take any actions. Recently several employees created a committee to begin developing strategies for reaching state accreditation. After the first meeting the superintendent wanted this committee to disband. Fortunately, through various methods of appealing to him, he changed his mind. The work of this committee is very exciting. What remains to be seen in the next month and a half is how the superintendent will respond to the recommendations. The work and results of this committee should take precedent over anything else in the district. However, we shall see how important the superintendent thinks it really is. Does the denial continue?
I believe the discussion above provides examples of how all the power is located at the top, and organizationally, SLPS is a mess.
Now, let's talk about the high points of SLPS. There is no doubt about it: we have thousands of talented personnel, from downtown out to the schools. Over the past five months, despite the resistance and the road blocks, I have spent time with the mangers of the social work, counseling, nursing, library, psychology, technology, transportation, special education, teaching, professional development, research, alternative education, summer school and extended school programs, and the list goes on. I am in awe of the talent and the dedication, but struck by the low morale. In some cases this low morale verges on depression, by staff who feel a complete lack of power to do the job they have. Staff are brimming with ideas and strategies, but are constantly told "no" by the superintendent. The concerns of staff are ignored, as are the concerns of parents. Teachers have voiced legitimate concerns, only to be ignored and have the usual stall tactics put in place. The innovations of staff can be seen through the number of special programs that flourish throughout the district. Take the archaeology and the pre-veterinarian programs at Gateway Technology Institute. They are unlike any else in the state or country. The entrance to the administration building downtown each month has a special display. Currently the display highlights the talent of students from various grade schools and the work they did in creating African art. It is truly impressive. The month before, there was the display of bridal and prom dresses created and sewn by students. As a seamstress myself, I was awestruck by the design and workmanship. If one were to look through the archives of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, The Argus, The St. Louis American and the Sentinel, one would see over and over again the work of exceptional students. The credit for this goes to the exceptional teachers employed in the district. It takes a very special and dedicated type of person to be such a teacher, and hats off to all of them.
My message that began on the campaign trail continues to be advocated now in the boardroom: we need to restructure, rebuild and reform how the administration relates to the individual schools. We need to restructure, rebuild and reform so that the local schools become more like neighborhood schools and can be autonomous. We need to restructure, reform, then rebuild the administration of this district. Like all school districts, it is resistant to change.
It will take continued education of new board members and a better education of the current board members in order to realize that we have to get control of this system if we want to save it. But more than that, we have an obligation to the students at SLPS to do so. When children are failing at reading, we as a board are failing as well.
Amy Hilgemann is a member of the St. Louis Public School board.