St. Louis schools lose accreditation

Friday, March 23, 2007
Roosevelt High School student Antonio Webb was pepper sprayed Thursday as he was apprehended by the Capitol Police for a physical altercation at the State Board of Education meeting in Jefferson City, Mo. The State Board of Education voted Thursday to strip the accreditation of the St. Louis School District. This will lead to a state takeover that is expected to last at least six years. The takeover becomes effective June 15. (HUY RICHARD MACH ~ St. Louis Post-Dispatch)

ST. LOUIS -- Over the angry objections of St. Louis students, Missouri's State Board of Education moved Thursday to take over the city's troubled school district, hoping to turn around years of budgetary problems and academic failure.

The board's 5-1 decision came during a contentious meeting in Jefferson City that was briefly halted during an outburst by students opposed to the takeover. One student was subdued with pepper spray.

Soon after the decision, Gov. Matt Blunt appointed St. Louis-area businessman Rick Sullivan to lead the three-member transitional board that will take over the state's largest district June 15.

The other two board members will be appointed, one by Mayor Francis Slay and the other by the president of the city Board of Aldermen. Those two appointments have not been announced. The locally elected school board will remain in place but have no power.

Slay said the state's decision was a welcome first step in the district's long road to recovery.

Veronica O'Brien, president of the St. Louis district's current school board, was surrounded by reporters after a hearing between the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and the St. Louis School District on Thursday in the Truman State Office Building in Jefferson City, Mo. (JULIE SMITH ~ News Tribune)

"This district has been in decline for decades," he said. "It may take a decade or more to reverse that."

School board member Bill Purdy said he and two other board members will sue to stop the takeover. He wouldn't say when the suit would be filed.

Some parents, teachers and students fear the takeover will damage the future of children in the district and make it more difficult for city students to get into college. A group of students staged a sit-in at City Hall for five days last week. And their anger spilled over at Thursday's meeting.

Capitol Police said a male student shoved an officer and then was chased outside the building, where he was subdued with pepper spray, handcuffed and turned over to juvenile authorities. The pepper spray drifted into a crowd of other students who had followed the chase. Emergency medical personnel were called, but no serious injuries were reported.

"This is our future, and they are messing it up when they take away accreditation from us," said Johnnie Fields, 17, a senior from the Gateway Institute of Technology.

State Education Commissioner Kent King said Thursday that the loss of accreditation typically should not affect students' scholarships or future school acceptances.

School board president Veronica O'Brien, who had supported the state takeover, left the building under police protection because some crowd members were yelling derogatory remarks at her.

"I think it's important for them to bring in some new leadership, some new administration, and someone who can really turn the district around," she said.

Superintendent Diana Bourisaw expressed disappointment at the state vote, insisted the district was improving and said she hoped the new governing board would allow her to remain in charge.

A parent in St. Louis, Etta Key, 38, teaches 16- to 78-year-olds in an adult literacy class where she said she has no trouble picking out the students who went to St. Louis public schools. Their grades are always low, she said.

"Change is needed," Key said. "What's going on isn't working. This board is a mess."

State Department of Elementary and Secondary Education staff said the school district with 32,000 students had failed to meet both academic and financial standards.

The district met only four of the 14 performance standards set by the state, failing in such areas as middle and high school math scores, graduation rates and college placement. To remain provisionally accredited, it would need to meet six of the 14 standards. Full accreditation requires meeting nine of the standards.

If trends hold, 13,000 of the students now enrolled in the district will not graduate, Slay said. Of those who do, only half will take the college entrance ACT test. Of them, less than 12 percent will score at or above the national average.

Sullivan, 54, will serve as chief executive of the three-member transitional board if his appointment is approved by the Missouri Senate.

He is chairman of the St. Louis construction firm McBride and Son Management Co. Inc. He is also founder of the Read, Write and Run program that promotes reading and wellness among children.

Sullivan said his first priority will be to listen to concerns from students, teachers and everyone else affiliated with the district.

Blunt said he was sensitive to those concerned about the takeover.

"I know change is hard, but I think change is necessary," he said.

Slay expects to name his appointment to the new board next week. Aldermanic President Jim Shrewsbury, who this month lost in a Democratic primary to Alderman Lewis Reed, said Reed should make the third appointment. Reed is unopposed in the general election in April. Reed said he has not decided on an appointment.

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