On April 6, 10 candidates will file to fill three spots on the St. Louis Public Schools Board of Education. The new Board members will be faced with supervising the “right-sizing” of the district, as six schools are shut down, and as the previous Board recently decided, will likely be supervising a moratorium on new school construction.
On March 10, the candidates convened for a virtual forum, moderated by the League of Women Voters of St. Louis and co-sponsored by the American Federation of Teachers Local 420, the teachers’ union that serves the city of St. Louis. There had been one prior forum, sponsored by community organization Ms. Tilly’s Corner, on March 3.
Only one candidate, Natalie Vowell, is an incumbent defending her seat — while some of the other nine candidates, such as veteran Bill Haas, and eight-year board veteran David Jackson have served on the board before, none are current members.
In 2019, membership of the Board was restored to a locally-controlled, elected position, after being made up of three state-level appointees for 12 years due to low test scores and struggles around accreditation in the district. After the district regained full accreditation in 2017, however, the Board expanded and became a group selected through an at-large election once again.
Board members are elected at-large to four-year terms. Current Board President Dorothy Rohde-Collins and Vice President Susan Jones will not be seeking re-election. The Board has seven members. Aside from Vowell, Jackson, and Haas, other candidates who have filed include Antoinette (Toni) Cousins, Matt Davis, Emily Hubbard, David Meredith, Daffney Moore, J.L. Mendoza Quinones and Alisha Sonnier.
Five of the ten candidates are Black, in a school district that serves an 80% Black student population. All live within the city of St. Louis, and many have children that went through St. Louis Public Schools. A few, such as Toni Cousins, went through the SLPS school system themselves: “I was one of the most troubled students growing up, gave my mom and dad trouble of course, but that helped me be the person that I am today and I thank them for that,” Cousins said at the forum on March 3. Since then, though, she noted that every single SLPS school she attended — aside from Ames Middle School — has been closed. She ran an alternative school program at Beaumont for children who had been kicked out of standard schooling, serving about 200 students, and now works with the Missouri Department of Housing and Development as an outreach coordinator.
Alisha Sonnier, another Black woman running, is also the youngest candidate, at age 25. She became heavily involved in activism during the Ferguson uprising in 2014, and struck a tone of advocacy for student involvement on the board itself. “I haven’t even had my 10 year high school reunion yet,” she noted. “So I’m a lot closer to the students. It’s important that we’re not speaking for our students, we’re speaking with them.”
Daffney Moore, an instructor with Harris-Stowe State University and chief Opportunity Zone officer with the St. Louis Development Corporation noted in a press release shared with Cousins that she hopes to not only address education while on the Board, but also “address safety concerns that plague St. Louis, improve our housing stock, and [create] new and sustained streams of revenue for SLPS.”
Moderator Louise Wilkerson with the League of Women Voters said that the “over 80” questions she received from the community for the forum on the 10th showcased the community’s current concerns: in particular, she received many questions regarding the charter school moratorium and regarding educational outcomes in St. Louis Public Schools. All candidates asked said that they supported a moratorium on new schools in the city. Regarding educational outcomes, plans varied: paying teachers better, providing better resources for the teachers and administrators, and “stepping outside of the boardroom” as Hubbard put it to see what those who learn and work in the schools need.
All candidates’ names will be on the April 6 ballot in the city of St. Louis.