Superintendents propose plan to aid troubled school districts

Franz does not believe he can support proposal as outlined

By Gloria Lloyd

If superintendents from around the state get their way, Missouri will change the way it accredits school districts, intervene sooner when scores fall and stop any further transfers among school districts.

Those are some of the recommendations in a two-page proposal from the Missouri Association of School Administrators, or MASA, outlining how to overhaul the state’s educational system.

The report was written by 25 superintendents from throughout the state, including Mehlville School District Superintendent Eric Knost, who highlighted some aspects of the plan during a Board of Education meeting last week.

“We clearly think — we’re just in lockstep on this across the state — that transferring students does not address the problem,” Knost said, pointing to the common thread of poverty among unaccredited school districts.

The superintendents’ plan would not require any state legislation to be enacted, only an agreement to follow it by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, or DESE. That could make it “an absolute fix to the unaccredited school district problem, if you will,” Knost said.

The plan calls for earlier intervention by the state into ailing school districts, starting when districts fall below 70 percent in their annual test scores. That would drop the district from accredited to provisionally accredited, which would bring in a team from other school districts to recommend strategies for improvement.

“Our effort is to create a proactive system that gets out in front of and catches districts as they begin to fail, so it’s not purely reactionary,” Knost said. “This is a proactive effort to catch districts that are potentially going in the wrong direction. And we feel the current system really doesn’t have a whole lot of meat to it until a district goes unaccredited — and then we’ve got a mess on our hands … The end game now is bankruptcy and no school district.”

Under the new plan, accreditation would not just be districtwide but also for each school, so that in a provisionally accredited district, students could choose to leave an unaccredited school to attend another school in the same district “if they exist and as space permits.”

The superintendents’ proposal does not include an “unaccredited” designation, so there would be no district-to-district transfers under the new plan, although transfer students already attending other districts would be allowed to continue until they graduate with the assistance of state funding.

State law mandates that students can attend another district if their school district is unaccredited.

If a provisionally accredited district shows no growth within five years, it will fall to the “Academically Stressed” level, the equivalent of the current unaccredited designation.

“We want accountability. They’re saying if you become an academically stressed district, the very first thing that can happen is the superintendent can be removed, the board can be removed, the administrators and teachers can be removed, regardless of contracts,” Knost said. “That’s big, and that’s bold, and that’s not anything that is anything like what we have now.”

On the “Academically Stressed” level, other school districts would contract to take over unaccredited schools, hiring their own employees and administrators to teach and oversee at the school, with the ultimate goal of improving the school enough that it can be returned to its home school district.

If the school district still does not demonstrate “sustained growth” within five years, the Missouri Board of Education could designate the school district as “Lapsed” and transfer its students and physical property to another school district.

The plan allows current transfer students to stay in their current district unless they move from their residential district or drop out of their district.

“It sounds to me like all of the taxpayers of the state of Missouri are still on the hook, ultimately — that means the taxpayers of the Mehlville School District — for a problem they did not create,” board Secretary Rich Franz said at the Nov. 7 meeting, adding he did not believe he could support the plan as outlined.

Franz also cited the television and radio appearances that Knost has made in the past few months following the decision by the unaccredited Riverview Gardens School District to select Mehlville as its transportation district.

“I hope that you will work on spending lots of time in the Mehlville School District, and I know your focus is on the Mehlville School District and not on your radio and TV appearances, correct?” Franz asked.

“I take that as an insult, but I understand what you’re saying,” Knost said. “You can shadow me a week, and I think you’d be alarmed at the kind of hours that I spend in the Mehlville School District, thank you.”

“We want to see you here,” Franz said.

“I think that everybody in this room except you would attest that they see me here all the time, thousands of classes, in and out — I’m insulted by the comment,” Knost said. “You don’t want the Mehlville School District to look that good, is all it is.”

Board member Elaine Powers told Franz that his statement did not represent the rest of the board.

“I don’t see it as a problem at all,” she told the Call. “The fact is, Mehlville has been thrust into the spotlight, and I’m pleased that we have a superintendent who is capable and able to show the district in its best light. I think that Dr. Knost represents the district well, and I do not think that it’s in any way impacting the district or the administration of the district in a negative way.

“And if any board member has an issue with an individual’s performance, that’s a closed-session topic.”

Franz told the Call that he received two complaints from residents about Knost’s recent television and radio appearances.

“I think I am typical of the majority of residents in our district who — as people who are not members of the educational community — we tend to view professional educators as people who should be spending the majority of their time with the kids, because our perception is that’s the primary focus of their job,” he said. “And, without having done a survey of Eric’s appearances … it is possible that there’s a perception in our community that the gentleman who is supposed to be running our school district is spending an inordinate amount of time on personal appearances.

“Now, I absolutely agree that those appearances paint the Mehlville School District in a positive light, and that’s all good, but I wanted to remind him that his first responsibility is to the parents and students of the Mehlville School District.”