Below is the text of a letter to the Special Advisory Committee on St. Louis Public Schools that I delivered to its chairman, William Danforth.
December 13, 2006
Members of the Special Advisory Committee c/o Mr. William Danforth Washington University
To the Esteemed Members of the Special Advisory Committee on St. Louis Public Schools,
Eight months ago, when I took a seat on the St. Louis Board of Education, I found a district on the verge of collapse. After three years of mayoral intervention, the St. Louis public school district was in financial disarray, performance had tumbled, school buildings were crumbling, teachers were disheartened and discouraged, and, after five superintendents in three years, the administration was adrift and out-of-touch with the realities of our schools and classrooms. To top it all off, the school board sat back doing nothing, having abdicated its responsibility to provide policy guidance to the superintendent and administration.
It was not a pretty picture. Since then, despite differences in philosophy and the entertaining antics of one or two board members, the board as a whole has taken important, but oft overlooked steps to stabilize the district administratively and financially, and it has begun to provide direction to reinvigorate teaching and restore our facilities.
When Donna Jones and I took seats on the school board in April 2006, St. Louis Public Schools were headed towards another operating deficit. Chief Financial Officer Cedric Lewis reported to the school board on April 17, 2006 that he anticipated a $2.7 million shortfall for the year (Board of Education, City of St. Louis, Regular Board Meeting, April 17, 2006, Minutes). We later learned that Mr. Lewis had not included all the bills in his budget, including a bill for contributions to the pension fund. As Mr. Robert Virgil reported to you on December 4, the actual shortfall was approximately $11 million.
By now, your research has uncovered for you that the school board's financial plan for St. Louis Public Schools was to spend more money than it took in.
The five-year financial plan put in place by the self-styled "turnaround" firm of Alvarez & Marsal called for ever larger operating deficits in FY 05-06, 06-07, 07-08, and 08-09 resulting in a negative net fund balance of $34 million in 06-07 that would increase to $40 million in 07-08 and $48 million in 08-09. ("St. Louis Public Schools, A Year Of Change And Progress, Final Report, June 30, 2004" from William V. Roberti, Managing Director, Alvarez & Marsal, Appendix B)
Mr. Virgil, in his financial report to you, correctly labeled such planning by then superintendent William Roberti and the then school board, and their successors, as a "lack of trusteeship." Mr. Virgil added that the accumulating deficits that the school board and its superintendents planned for would eventually "bankrupt" the school district.
What may perhaps surprise you, is that Mr. Roberti's proposal for planned deficit spending contained some unrealistically rosy assumptions, specifically that St. Louis Public Schools would not only stop losing students, but would grow enrollment by 1,000 more students ("St. Louis Public Schools, A Year Of Change And Progress, Final Report, June 30, 2004," Appendix B).
As you know, St. Louis Public Schools did not gain students, it continued to lose students, a trend that, as Mr. Virgil pointed out, was very predictable. The result was that the net loss each year was even larger than the school board and Mr. Roberti had planned on, $11 million in 04-05 and $14 million in 05-06, according to Mr. Virgil's verbal report to you on December 4.
According to plan, the 06-07 budget presented to us by then superintendent Creg Williams called for the district to again spend more money than it took in.
This time, however, the school board said "stop." Waking up to its responsibility of trusteeship, the school board insisted that the superintendent present it with a balanced operating budget. Yes, there were some board members, such as Mr. Robert Archibald, who vociferously opposed every board action to require a balanced operating budget as an infringement on the authority of the superintendent (Board of Education Regular Meeting Minutes, May 9, 2006 and June 13, 2006), but what is important is the action of the board as a whole.
The school board as a whole set a new policy that the district's spending would not exceed its revenues, and it repeatedly rejected Mr. Williams' budget proposals that called for spending more than the district was expected to take in.
While the planned deficits show that the board previously had a wrong-headed fiscal policy, which has been corrected, they do not give even the sketchiest sense of the true extent of financial chaos that dogged the school district. Senior staff said the former administration commonly budgeted numbers without regard to costs, and arbitrarily cut budgets and eliminated positions without regard to function. In the last months of the former administration, for example, the administration eliminated the district's core data specialist and the positions that oversaw the implementation of state and federal grants, while beefing up the superintendent's own staff.
The financial systems got so tangled up that in early June 2006, the district could not even pay employees properly. Not only did the district fail to deposit salaries into employees' bank accounts, but then it failed to follow through and distribute the make-up checks it promised, and then it failed to have everything ready for employees when it asked them to come down to the headquarters building to pick up their checks. As a result, many employees stood in line for up to seven hours after the end of their work day, waiting for their checks.
Making up numbers for things might be fun, but the real world has a way of intruding on even the strongest imaginations. The real world began intruding on the district's imaginary 05-06 budget in a big way in May 2006, when the pension fund office demanded payment of $2.1 million due it, money that had not been included in the budget.
After the school board's insistence on a balanced operating budget, the new superintendent, Diana Bourisaw, cut several positions from the superintendent's office, and more from elsewhere in the headquarters administration, in order to save $8 million, which was used to cover unbudgeted debts from the previous administration and to balance the operating budget.
Once Ms. Bourisaw and the new chief financial officer, Enos Moss, implemented stronger fiscal oversight and controls, the school board learned that staff's stories about made up numbers were true. We discovered that the budget did not include many expenditures mandated by state and federal regulations or court orders. The district was not in compliance with spending rules on transportation to and from school, on transportation of homeless students, on asbestos management, building maintenance, lead abatement, magnet schools, professional development, Parents as Teachers, assets inventory. The shortfalls amounted to more than $24 million (preliminary reports from interim Chief Financial Officer Moss to the school board in Regular Meeting October 10, 2006 and November 21, 2006. Draft Report "Various Federal/State/Local Requirements And The Related Budget, 11/7/2006). That required the administration and the school board to make some hard decisions in reallocating funds in order to comply with regulatory mandates while maintaining a balanced operating budget, and they did so.
Upon learning of the compliance issues, the school board asked the administration to include compliance requirements in future budget planning documents so board members and the public can see what expenditures are mandated to the board and where the school board has discretion to make cuts or reallocations. This is the first year that the school board has asked for such information, which is crucial to its fiscal governance.
Ms. Bourisaw and Mr. Moss conducted a payroll audit to verify that there were no phantom employees on the payroll, and to confirm that everyone was getting paid the proper amount. They have instituted new processes and procedures to avoid a repetition of the paycheck fiasco that occurred under the previous superintendent and to cut down on payroll errors. Although there have been some errors on paychecks since then, they have affected a relative handful of people and they were quickly corrected.
Such processes were crucial to regain the trust of employees and reassure them of the stability of their incomes.
As I have mentioned, instability at the top had become a chronic feature of St. Louis Public Schools during the three years of mayoral interference in the school system before April 2006. The school district saw five superintendents in those three years. And the instability was spreading, undercutting the lives and plans of teachers, parents, and students in the district.
It is heart-wrenching to see the effects of such instability on schools and students, above and beyond the effects of suddenly closing schools without public discussion and with very little warning.
Constant churning among the instructional leaders in schools undermined the schools' mission of teaching.The turnover rate amongst principals in those three years was nearly 75%. Instructional coordinators were eliminated from all schools to be replaced with literacy coaches, who were then eliminated and replaced with curriculum coaches, who were themselves then eliminated.
The instability reached the lowest ranks of school employees, who nonetheless often are in direct contact with students: the custodian and food service workers. With the outsourcing of custodial and food service functions to private contractors, the school district lost control of assignments. Corporate policies to move people around to cover employee departures and rearranging work schedules, coupled with a high turnover due to lower compensation and deteriorating work conditions, led to more instability in the faces children and teachers see in schools cleaning and serving meals.
Many teachers, of course, had been forced to change jobs when schools were closed in 2003. They had barely gotten used to their new surroundings when the ground shook under their feet again.
On May 23 and 24, 2006, the administration of then Superintendent Williams sent over one-third of the district's teachers notices stating: "We regret to inform you that on May 26, 2006, your assignment at your current location will end. . . . However, many vacant positions will exist throughout the St. Louis Public School District, and we strongly encourage you to apply for one of them."
The letters surprised everyone, including school board members. In April, when the school board approved a plan to restructure some schools under No Child Left Behind and reconfigure grade configurations at others, Mr. Williams had said that the internal reorganization he was proposing was an alternative to replacing teachers in the reconstituted schools (Board of Eduation Regular Board Meeting Minutes, April 17, 2006).
Weeks went by without getting teachers placed in new positions. The former administration's failure to have any plan or process in place for distinguishing between good teachers and bad teachers, and its failure to put the resources in place to efficiently interview and rehire the 1,000 teachers affected by the notice, reinforced the sense of instability and capriciousness in the district.
Teachers did not know where, or if, they would have a job, and principals did not know who would be teaching in their schools.
St. Louis Public Schools have many dedicated and high qualified, and very capable teachers and principals, who do their absolute best for the children entrusted to them for education, but it takes more than individual dedication and qualification to successfully educate large numbers of children.
Decades of research have shown that children learn best when they establish a long-term relationship with some adult in the school, who encourages learning. It does not have to be their own teacher, as long as an adult they feel an important connection to is encouraging them to learn. Schools work best when the staff, teachers and non-teachers alike, work together as a team to encourage learning and good behavior.
The constant churning of school administrators, teachers, and other staff destroyed the relationships that are so important for student learning and effective schools, and prevented new relationships from forming. This was the instability that most profoundly affected students and their families, and it was felt most strongly this year, when families saw so many new faces in their schools after the chaos spawned by the former administration.
The effects of such churning rippled far beyond the teachers, principals, and staff that were moved from school to school. All those moves sparked rumor after rumor that other teachers would be moved, further interfering with the development of constructive relationships. They fanned feelings of frustration and helplessness among teachers and parents, and taught them to mistrust announcements made even at school board meetings.
In May 2006, for example, the school board asked then Superintendent Williams to summarize for it the changes planned for the districts magnet schools. When that item came up on the agenda, Mr. Williams walked out of the meeting. When he came back, he said there were no changes planned. A week later, the recruitment and counseling office sent notices to parents of students at one magnet school, the Pruitt Military Academy, that the military academy would be dissolved at the end of the school year and parents had to apply for other schools for their children for the following year. The principal at another magnet school, Madison Individually Guided Education, announced to her teachers that the program at Madison was being terminated and teachers would have to apply for jobs at other schools. Mr. Williams brought that decision to the school board for its ratification the following month, but he never formally told the parents about it. A host of other schools were changed as well.
Just as participants in the recent focus groups on St. Louis Public Schools, pulled together for the special advisory committee, realized that sometimes change is necessary to bring stability, so too did the board of education. In July 2006, Mr. Williams decided to resign rather than change the way he managed St. Louis Public Schools. The school board immediately brought Diana Bourisaw in to takeover the superintendent's job.
Ms. Bourisaw immediately set to work to stabilize staff. In five weeks she placed the 1,000+ teachers waiting for assignments into jobs, and her staff began revamping the human resources staff so that next year teachers would know in April where they would work the following year instead waiting until August to find out. Principals, too, were confirmed in their assignments and given coaching to help them succeed. And she reaffirmed the missions of magnet schools, and began working to bolster them.
While Ms. Bourisaw worked to bring stability to schools and staff, the school board, as body, acted to bring more stability to the superintendents. Yes, there were one or two dissidents, but the board as a whole adopted a performance-based superintendent evaluation process that was developed by the Missouri School Boards Association, which gives superintendents a minimum of two years to meet their goals before they can be terminated (Board of Education, Regular Meeting Minutes, November 21, 2006). This is the first time in several years, and maybe ever, that the school board has a formal, performance-based superintendent evaluation process.
In February 2004, the St. Louis Board of Education adopted a literacy plan prepared by education adviser Rudy Crew and St. Louis Public School staff that called for training literacy coaches and teachers in differentiated instruction (St. Louis Public Schools Literacy Initiative, February 5, 2004).
Differentiated instruction is an approach to teaching that is widely endorsed by education associations in the United States, including the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, the International Reading Association, and the Missouri School Boards Association. In addition, DESE looks for differentiated instruction during it Missouri School Improvement Plan (MSIP) 4th cycle review.
Differentiated instruction grew out of a large body of research that shows that different children learn at different paces and by different methods, and that students generally learn best when they know about 80 percent of what they are being taught. The methodologies of differentiated instruction were pioneered by special education teachers working to find ways to effectively teach both special education and mainstream children in the same classroom.
Despite the St. Louis school board's 2004 call for differentiated instruction, no training in differentiated instruction was given to teachers until August 2006.
Instead, in November 2004, the then chief academic officer, Lynn Spampinato, insisted on a strict, cookie cutter approach to education. Starting in the elementary schools, she said that on any particular day, every teacher in a particular grade should be on the same page at the same time everywhere in the school district. She sent enforcement teams through every elementary classroom with orders to throw away any reading books, charts, or lessons they found that were not part the new reading series, even if they belonged personally to teachers. Teachers received schedules telling them what to teach at 9, 9:15, 9:30, and so on. The same SWAT teams later came back to make sure that every teacher posted the same placards and posters on their walls, and in the same order. Regular education, special ed, or gifted did not matter: they all were supposed to teach from the same page.
Not surprisingly, such heavy-handed tactics added to the demoralization and frustrations felt by large number of teachers. Ms. Spampinato said in October 2005 that teachers should like the new system, because they don't have to worry about what new students know or don't know, they just turn to the page they are supposed to teach from and read. Many teachers, however, felt that ignoring students was not teaching. Principals at the early childhood centers complained as a group that the new system was too rigid for them to give help to those students who were falling behind, or push forward those children who were learning at a faster pace than was scheduled.
Mr. Williams likened differentiated instruction to "academic suicide." (Board of Education Regular Meeting Minutes, April 17, 2006).
Although Ms. Spampinato told the school board in September 2004 that her rigid approach to teaching would lead to sharply higher levels of student performance in its second year she suggested that the percentage of students scoring proficient or advanced on the MAP test would double or more the opposite happened. In the second year of her rigid teaching system, the percentage of students scoring proficient or advanced on the elementary MAP in communication arts in St. Louis Public Schools actually fell. That is the only year-to-year decline in elementary MAP communication arts scores for St. Louis in the history of the MAP, and it happened in the year that MAP scoring was revamped to fall into four grades instead of five, which was expected to increase communication arts scores.
This year, that is changing. In August, teachers and principals received their first professional development in differentiated instruction. Principals were given the authority to guide their own teachers, in conjunction with districtwide benchmark tests given every 5-6 weeks. Differentiated instruction is now firmly embedded in the professional development plan that is part of the curriculum-instruction-assessment cycle.
Under the former administration, the district had lacked a professional development plan, and it was out of compliance with grant requirements for spending on professional development. That, too, is changing. This autumn, every site received instructions to develop a professional development plan specific to its needs and forward it to headquarters to become part of a districtwide professional development plan that will be presented to the school board.
The school board and the administration also have established an instruction subcommittee to continually look at instructional programs and how well they are aligned with the comprehensive school improvement plan.
After years of neglect, the St. Louis school board this year began the process of taking a serious look at the facility needs of St. Louis Public Schools. In September, the board empowered the administration to begin developing a facility master plan. Since then, the board and the administration have established a facilities subcommittee to evaluating the district's facility needs.
Mr. Virgil reported to you that the district has to take a serious look at the number of its facilities. We also have to consider the age and appropriateness of our facilities. Several of Mr. Williams' directives for individuals schools had to be undone in August, because the directives conflicted with the actual space in the schools. He severely overcrowded Metro High, for example, and ordered additional grades put into Jefferson and Mann Schools, even though those schools were already overcrowded. On the other extreme, buildings were opened for programs that occupy only a fraction of the available space.
In addition to determining the right number and mix of facilities for our projected student population, the school board also has begun discussing how best to maintain them. In July 2003, Mr. Roberti asserted that the district had a $60 million maintenance backlog. Three years later, in May 2006, Mr. Williams said the maintenance backlog had risen to $300 million (Board of Education Special Meeting Minutes, May 2, 2006). The last three administrators in charge of buildings, Mr. William Fisher, Mr. Gary Hughey, and Ms. Deanna Anderson, have all said that for the last several years the budgets for maintenance have been too small to keep building conditions level. In tandem with determining the right number and mix of school buildings the district needs, the school board and district administrators also are discussing how to most effectively maintain them.
School Board Governance
The St. Louis Board of Education like the board of alderman(), the General Assembly, and the U.S. Congress has a history of colorful members, whose behavior makes for more entertaining stories in the press than does the actual work of the board. Individuals aside, the board also has difficulty settling on what exactly is its proper role. There are at least three schools of thought on the board: always defer to the superintendent, set policy and hold the superintendent accountable, or get directly involved in hiring, firing, and running programs.
In my opinion, the board, as a body, in the last six months has tended to hew closely to the set policy and hold the superintendent accountable option.
In any event, the school board voted unanimously to ask the Missouri School Boards Association to bring the DESE-backed Intensive Assistance to Districts program to St. Louis to help us better settle on the proper roles and functioning of the school board and the superintendent (Board of Education Regular Meeting Minutes, November 21, 2006). Our first session in the Intensive Assistance to Districts program is to be in January.
In addition, in order to both ensure that the board monitors district operations to see that they are moving forward in accordance with the district's comprehensive improvement plan, and to encourage public participation in district planning and policy making, the school board has asked the superintendent to recommend an annual calendar of CSIP-related discussion topics for board meetings for the year. One board member has complained that in his nearly four years on the board, the board has spent very little time discussing education. This is the first time, however, that the board and the administration have set plans to set aside time for such discussions at every board meeting during the year.
Eight months ago, the situation facing St. Louis Public Schools was very dire. Since then, the school board has taken numerous steps to rescue the district and put it on a path towards financial and academic improvement.
We had no magic wand. It will take time to see the fruits of our efforts, which include reforms in every area from finances to board operations. Those reforms include:
Despite of the differences that exist on the school board in St. Louis, I submit to you that in the last eight months the St. Louis school board has done more than the board had done for the previous four years to correct problems bedeviling the district and set it on the path of future improvement.
Peter Downs Member St. Louis Board of Education
An inglorious peace is better than a dishonorable war.