This blog is dedicated to the children of Missouri that are being serviced by the Special Education system. They are not receiving the services that they need because they will never make the state or their districts look good.
Art McCoy stood in front of legislators a few months ago in a small auditorium at St. Charles Community College, offering a controversial idea to help kids in failing schools — choice.
The superintendent of the Ferguson-Florissant School District was one of many educators and school district officials who spoke to members of the Missouri House that September afternoon. But some of his ideas about a student transfer law were in stark contrast to theirs.
McCoy, 36, offered this fix: With a combination of school choice, capped tuition and more comprehensive solutions for unaccredited schools, area school districts could handle more than 15,000 transfer students, he told them. That would be more than five times the amount of students transferring this year under the law upheld in June by the Missouri Supreme Court.
At that hearing and another that evening, three members of the Ferguson-Florissant School Board watched from the audience. So did area superintendents and teacher union groups.
“I remember thinking, I wonder if his board agrees with him,” said Don Senti, a former superintendent who directs Cooperating School Districts of Greater St. Louis. “Some of the things he said were pretty far out there.”
Members of the School Board won’t elaborate on the “differences in focus and philosophy” that were cited as their reasoning to suspend McCoy this month.
What’s known is that for more than a year, McCoy has been appearing at numerous public meetings and before state commissions taking stances on issues that are contrary to those of most of the state’s superintendents and school boards.
McCoy’s suspension comes as a broader fight is intensifying statewide over school choice and how to best help children in troubled schools.
Since the high court ruling, McCoy has worked to welcome transfer students to his district at a time when the academic performance of his school system is slipping. His actions have resulted in his district’s absorption of 430 students from the unaccredited Normandy and Riverview Gardens districts.
Some say McCoy’s toughness on teachers has created tensions with board members backed by the Missouri National Education Association. Others say his openness to school choice has contributed to his falling out with the Ferguson-Florissant board.
But Ferguson-Florissant board leaders Paul Morris and Chris Martinez dismissed any connection between McCoy’s suspension and his positions on school choice.
“Just because Dr. McCoy may have wanted to have some kind of conversation in the public or in the board room about what some might consider really different ideas ... it’s not at all about that,” Martinez said.
A NEW BOARD
McCoy was placed on administrative leave Nov. 6 by a 6-1 vote of the School Board. Almost immediately, a firestorm erupted in the 11,500-student district.
Parents began questioning the motives behind the board, made up of six white and one Hispanic member. McCoy is the first African-American superintendent of the district, which has majority black enrollment.
The St. Louis chapter of the NAACP is exploring whether racism played a role. A crowd of about 1,500 parents, students and district residents packed into a high school gymnasium on Nov. 13 to question the board’s decision.
Since the vote to suspend McCoy, explanations from the board have been limited, but have hinted at problems within the district.
Morris, the board president, has said “our concerns regarding compliance with board directives are significant enough to warrant action.” Initially, the board released a statement about the leave stating it was not an indication of wrongdoing.
McCoy assumed the role of superintendent at a time of turnover on the School Board. Most of the members who voted to hire him are no longer on the board.
Three current board members – Rob Chabot, Morris and Martinez – were elected with the backing of the teachers union in April 2011. At the time, McCoy had been hired as superintendent, but had not started in the position.
Some say McCoy’s difficulties with the board are at least partly centered on his relationship with Morris.
Morris is a former teacher who had resigned in 2010 from one of the district’s high schools, McCluer North, and was a longtime active member of the teachers’ union. He left teaching after Principal Shane Hopper confronted him about using district property and purchase orders for personal use, as well as ordering items without prior approval.
Morris admitted to minor violations in his resignation letter. But he contended that Hopper sought to get rid of him because he had questioned several of the principal’s decisions.
At the time, McCoy was an assistant superintendent overseeing high schools.
Former School Board member Chuck Henson believes Morris has a personal vendetta against McCoy. Henson said Morris asked him not to vote for McCoy.
“Paul did everything he could to try to figure out a way to get Dr. McCoy out,” Henson said.
Morris said the accusation of trying to oust McCoy for personal reasons is completely false. He reiterated the vote to place McCoy on paid administrative leave was 6-1.
“I couldn’t have orchestrated that,” Morris said.
McCoy’s future with the district remains uncertain.
The board has given no indication of whether it will ultimately fire him. McCoy has not spoken publicly about the details surrounding his suspension, or whether he will resign. He has been spending time with his family, said a supporter who’s been in touch with him.
On Friday, the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education reported it had found that someone had tampered with the district’s attendance figures reported to the state in 2012. That could result in a loss of $80,000 for the district. But the department did not indicate who was responsible.
In recent years, McCoy has been viewed by many as a rising star in the state’s education establishment. In 1997, when he was 19, he was thought to be the state’s youngest certified teacher.
He eventually became an administrator in the Rockwood School District, where he oversaw the program that allowed African-American students from St. Louis to transfer to suburban schools under the voluntary desegregation agreement.
At Ferguson-Florissant, he showed a willingness to accept transfer students even before the Missouri Supreme Court had upheld their legality.
In 2011, when other area superintendents were turning away students from unaccredited districts, Ferguson-Florissant officials became aware that several students from Riverview Gardens were attending their schools, said Les Lentz, on the board at the time. After the district confirmed their residency, McCoy and the board chose to look the other way and not send them back, Lentz said.
“If that kid was getting an education, that’s what counted,” Lentz said.
McCoy’s openness to transfers has continued this year. The district has spent $400,000 to add 15 teachers and teacher assistants to accommodate the transfers. It has done so even as most school districts have resisted spending tuition payments from Normandy and Riverview on additional staff or programs.
McCoy, in contrast, helped raise private funds to provide transfer students with bus transportation. The district also has used existing programs to help students who need food, or money to keep the utilities on at their home.
State Rep. Steve Cookson, R-Poplar Bluff, who chaired the interim House committee on education, said he specifically invited McCoy to speak at the September hearings.
“Sometimes it’s tough if you want to do what’s best for children and get outside the mainstream establishment of education,” Cookson said. “If you don’t walk just lockstep with them, that can be difficult. And dangerous.”
Jessica Bock covers K-12 education for the Post-Dispatch. Follow her on twitter @jessicabock