Peter Downs has an intense interest in the goings-on of the St. Louis Public Schools and its newly installed board majority: he ran for one of the open seats last fall, and has children in the school system. His newsletter, St. Louis Schools Watch, has fast become essential reading for citizens seeking to fill in the gaps between board actions and the public protest that sometimes surrounds them.
Downs spoke with The Commonspace about his reaction to the new board and his newsletter.
Describe the origin of the St. Louis Schools Watch newsletter and Commonsense: when and why did you begin publishing? What is the focus of your content?
St. Louis Schools Watch grew out of the race for the St. Louis Board of Education this past winter.
As candidates, Mary Ann McGivern and I noticed how little attention the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and other news outlets paid to school issues of any type not education issues, not management issues, not anything particular to the St. Louis Public Schools. In the news pages, there was a lot of attention paid to Mayor Slay getting involved in the politics of the school system, and a lot of attention paid to the mechanics of Slay's candidates running as a slate, but there was nothing about the problems or issues victorious school board candidates would have to confront. The editorial page gave St. Louis Public Schools more attention, but the editors seemed obsessed with a fiction. The starting point for one editorial after another was that disagreements on the school board kept the board from taking any constructive action. While some board members often acted in embarrassing ways, anyone who attended a board meeting could see that business got done whether it was the right business is a completely different issue. Probably ninety percent of votes were unanimous. The rest of the time a majority, often of five or six members, got its way. The notion that the board was deadlocked and unable to function was a complete fabrication.
We started out with maybe 60 supporters who were familiar with school and education issues. We finished the campaign with names of over 500 such supporters. Having gotten people more interested in and educated about St. Louis Public Schools, it seemed a shame to leave them with nothing. As there seemed to be no place to refer people to maintain their information about public schools and public school problems, we decided to start such a place, and it became the St. Louis Schools Watch. Our original plan was a quarterly print newsletter and occasional email updates, so events took us as much by surprise as they did everyone else.
Besides, in a democracy, it is the responsibility of the losers in elections to try to keep the winners honest.
As for Commonsense Publishing, we felt that if we were to go through all the trouble of incorporating and trying to comply with state and federal regulations, we might as well create a legal vehicle that would be available to other grassroots newsletters as they arise.
You ran unsuccessfully for school board in the last election were you surprised at the election's outcome? How do you think the school board might be operating differently now had your slate (which included Antonio French and Mary Ann McGivern) won?
In general, no, I wasn't surprised by the outcome. There were a couple of other also-rans whose vote totals surprised me, (one did better than I expected and another did worse), but after all the mailings and phone calls from Slay's group of four, I thought the outcome was pretty certain.
Mary Ann, Antonio, and I consistently stressed the need for staff, parent and community involvement in a process to evaluate what worked and what didn't in the St. Louis Public Schools in order to restructure the budget around what worked. All of the candidates knew we would be facing a budget crisis. There would have been cuts, but I think they would have been different from what this board has offered. By involving parents, staff and community in discussions about the seriousness of the budget deficit and about what to cut, I believe some of the acrimony and distrust in which the current board has become embroiled would have been avoided.
I also think we would have been more open to requesting a temporary tax increase. I think we would have been prepared to go to the public and say, "We've cut a, b and c. To balance the budget, we either have to cut x, y and z, or raise taxes for two years. Are x, y and z important enough to you that you will pay more to keep them?"
What do you think, in as much detail as you care to go into, of the actions of the school board since the election?
I think they have paid way too much for a cookbook recipe for restructuring organizations. I think they are following the recipe without any regard for local circumstances or policies, and without regard for how it affects education. I think that is, at least in part, because they are trying to push through long-term changes under the guise of dealing with a short-term crisis.
I think they have mistaken their election as representatives for installation as kings. The American system of democracy doesn't just allow for public input, it mandates it. That is public policy at both the federal and state levels, expressed through requirements for hearings and public comment before administrative agencies even issue new rules. A state law that the school board ignored expressly mandates public hearings before a school board seeks a waiver of certification requirements for a superintendent, for example.
I think this board's contempt for the principles and practices of American democracy have swelled and inflamed the opposition to their actions. Board members' refusal to answer public questions or to ask questions about the proposals before them adds fuel to those flames.
What's your response to those who say, "Look, the four new members ran as a slate, clearly stated during the campaign that they would implement sweeping change...and they won. This kind of decisive action is exactly what the voters said they wanted."
Poppycock. The Black Leadership Roundtable, which was part of the core group that planned the election strategy and even picked two members of the slate, has disavowed the board's decisions and said those decisions are not what BLR members expected. The teachers' union was one of the early supporters of three of the four new members, and its president was part of the inner circle that picked the slate, yet it has disavowed the board's decisions and said they are not what teachers expected. When groups that helped draft the slate and its campaign say that the candidates they worked for are not doing what they want or expect, it is exceedingly absurd and dishonest to say voters are getting exactly what they wanted.
You have three kids in the St. Louis Public Schools. Will they be there on the first day? Do you feel confident in their schools?
I have three children, but only one is in St. Louis Public Schools. My oldest graduated in June, and my youngest is only three. I expect the first day of school will be unusually confused and chaotic, and I plan to keep my daughter away from it.