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These days, it seems like the St. Louis Board of Education can't even buy good publicity.
Riding on the heels of a bruising state takeover that featured board member Donna Jones and local radio talk show host Lizz Brown leading students on a five-day sit-in at the mayor's office, Brown, Jones and other members of the board are again making headlines.
The issues du jour: a $25,000 no-bid contract the board awarded at last week's meeting to Brown's PR firm, Penetrating Urban Market Politics (PUMP), and a lawsuit filed in Cole County earlier this week seeking an injunction against the state board of education's impending takeover.
Critics say the Brown contract smacks of cronyism and point to what they say are the close ties Brown has with school board members Peter Downs and Donna Jones. Downs, who appears for an hour each week on Brown's show on WGNU (920 AM), has long been a political ally of Brown, a vigorous opponent of charter schools. Jones, who teamed with Brown during last spring's sit-in, is also a frequent guest.
"Purdy admitted on the record that he let the contract," grouses school board member Veronica O'Brien. "I said, 'Would this person or company be associated or have anything to do with any board members?' He just sat there and looked like a bug-eyed deer. Nobody wanted to say anything. You've got to wonder if this is reimbursement for organizing the sit-in."
Under the thirteen-month contract, Brown is expected to deliver a television and print public-relations campaign that Brown says will warn parents of the "false hope" of charter schools and "get the message out" about the St. Louis schools' good qualities.
In an interview last week, Brown, who described her relationship with board members Jones and Downs as a "professional reporting type of a thing," defended the board's decision, saying that she has been a longtime opponent of charter schools and that there was nothing untoward in the board awarding her the contract.
"We have companies that are making money that are preying on the sentiment that it's not difficult to be better than the St. Louis public schools," says Brown. "I'm uniquely qualified to articulate the challenges that face this district, and I'm uniquely qualified to speak on behalf of this district."
The problem, though, says board member Flint Fowler, is that when Brown proposes "to speak on behalf of this district," she delivers the wrong message.
"It's short-sighted. It's a negative approach to achieve a desired end: You're bashing charter schools to make the St. Louis public schools look better, but we should be accentuating the positive in St. Louis Public Schools," says Fowler. "It needs to be focused on the good things and not create a situation where the St. Louis Public Schools are the lesser of two evils."
He adds that the appearance of impropriety doesn't help much, either.
"You want to avoid the appearance of any ethical breach," says Fowler. "Whenever you're dealing with public funds — you need to consider that Peter [Downs] does a show with her, and the fact that he supported [the contract], that there was no bid and legal counsel didn't get the chance to review it. How could this be so important that you sidestep all of those steps to award the contract?"
But as this current board bickers its way into summer, a greater question looms over the district: Do the decisions the board makes and the contracts it awards even matter anymore?
If all goes according to plan, the school district will lose its accreditation next week. At that point, an appointed three-member transitional school board will be seated and assume power over the district. The panel will consist of one appointee from Governor Matt Blunt, one from Mayor Francis Slay and one from Board of Aldermen President Lewis Reed. So far, only Blunt has named his appointee, Rick Sullivan.
"The law says that operational authority for running the school district transfers to the transitional board," says state board of education spokesman Jim Morris, who adds that the current board will have no authority. "I would certainly think that they are going to look at the business opportunities of the district generally — and contracts would be a place to start."
In other words, once the transition board assumes control, it will have authority to review and amend the board of education's previous decisions and contracts.
"The St. Louis School Board doesn't dissolve. It doesn't cease to exist, but its role will have to be determined," says Morris. "There could be a working relationship established between these two bodies. There could also be an antagonistic relationship between the two bodies. We don't know how this is going to unfold."
Although state education officials say they are prepared to offer an olive branch, it appears that this contentious school board is already reaching for its quiver.
Last week, the board appealed the state's decision to strip the district's accreditation, arguing that the statute that permits a transitional school district impedes the "will of the voters."
On Monday, the board of education — with the exception of board members Veronica O'Brien and Flint Fowler — filed a lawsuit to block the state takeover, arguing that the takeover was "arbitrary and capricious."
"Even if we loose the injunction, the school board will continue to control the money and much of the future money that is collected. The board will continue to control much of the district's operations," says board member Peter Downs, who characterizes the state board of education's assertion that the three-member transitional board will have full authority over the district as "politicking."
"The district will pay for filing a lawsuit," Downs explains, arguing that the takeover is unconstitutional. "If the request for an injunction is denied and the transition board takes over, then we would expect that the transition board would stop payment [for the lawsuit]. That is why there's a fund called Save Our Children's Education to pay the money to keep the lawsuit going."
Board member Jones did not respond to several interview requests.
O'Brien, meanwhile, sees the bad publicity generated by the Lizz Brown contract as yet another blow to a district that's been on the ropes for decades. "This is a joke, and it needs to be portrayed for what it is. They lack the brain capacity to run a school district with a $400 million budget," says O'Brien, herself no stranger to controversy.
"This city and this region is being destroyed by a major institution that's sitting in the center of downtown. Right now we have a golden opportunity for a new advisory board to come in and take apart this system. But the advisory board is really going to have to take it apart: the arms, the legs, the head — everything."