Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Response from Katherine Wessling - School Board Candidate

1. What education (schools attended, degrees attained), experience, and attributes do you have that qualify you for a position on the St. Louis Public Schools (SLPS) Board of Education?

I have a B.A. from Truman State University and a J.D. from Washington University School of Law. With the exception of Wash U, every school I have attended was a public school. I believe that my liberal arts education prepared me to appreciate education and to be able to consider multiple viewpoints. I believe my legal experience helps me greatly, both in navigating the many laws that affect public education as a whole and SLPS in particular, and also in the skills it has fostered in me of being able to issue-spot and problem solve to look for an answer that addresses the needs of the many, not only the few.

2. What do you view as the key role(s) of this position? What do you view as the important attributes needed for this position?

A Board Member needs to be a member of the community they serve so that they can enact policies that reflect the community’s needs. A Board Member needs to know their role and remain within it; that role includes governance and policy setting and does not include micromanagement of the district. This position requires a person who inspires trust and confidence. The community needs to feel that a board member is listening and truly cares about the needs of all stakeholders, and is not merely representing the interests of a few.

3. Why do you think you are the best person for SLPS Board of Education? What differentiates you from your opponents?

I have served two terms as a board member, and I have been actively involved in SLPS affairs since 2004 when my child started school at Wilkinson E.C.C. I have been involved as a PTO member, and as an advocate at School Board meetings (prior to election) for school and district level issues such as transportation and school day length. I have helped other parents join together and learn to advocate for their schools and children. Prior to election, I served on district committees and actively engaged with the district and staff. I still have a child in SLPS and am still keenly aware of how district policy plays out at the building level.

As a Board Member, I have helped to develop the transition plan for returning governance to the Elected Board. I feel I am unique among the current Board Members in that I have been able to work both with members of my own board and with SAB members during my tenure. I have served on the Internal Audit Committee at the invitation of Rick Sullivan since its inception. Not all Elected Board members have chosen or been invited to continue working on district committees since the SAB took charge; at the same time, I have been elected on the Board of Education as an officer for the last five years consecutively. I am proud that I have been able to work with members of both boards in a productive way. I do not like the institution of the SAB, but I do not consider the people who comprise the SAB to be enemies. While I will always advocate for the families of SLPS first and foremost, I believe my ability to work with the players “across the lines” is a quality that will serve the citizens of St. Louis City well should I be elected to continue serving them.

None of the non-incumbent candidates in this election have been involved in SLPS affairs over these last years. I have not seen any of them at our Board meetings, ever. I have not heard their names in connection with SLPS. They do not, to my knowledge, have children in SLPS. I think at this crucial time, as the time to transition back to the Elected Board is hopefully coming, it would be unfortunate to lose Board Members who have been active members of preparing for transition and have had leadership roles in doing so and to replace them with people who, while having the best of intentions I am sure, are not “up to speed” with the current state of the Board, the history that got us to this place, or transition plans which have been carefully honed over the past few years. They may someday make wonderful board members, but right now, none of them are ready.

4. What do you feel are the greatest strengths and weaknesses of the SLPS? What do you feel are the most pressing issues currently facing the SLPS system, and what plans do you have to address these issues?

The greatest strength is that many individual buildings are doing wonderful things with their students. In many of the buildings in which my children have been students, they have had teachers that were/are completely amazing. I have never regretted sending my children to SLPS.

The weaknesses are the public perception and inability to offer an environment that appeals to middle class parents.

The most pressing issues facing SLPS are the inappropriate way funds for public education are delivered (this is a statewide issue, not a local one) and the aforementioned inability to appeal to middle class parents. The first requires joining with all public districts statewide to advocate with the legislature to change the funding formula. The second requires advocacy within. The many who take their children to other educational opportunities largely choose other public schools, either charter or through VICC. The difference is the culture of the institution and the expectations placed on the students. Culture within SLPS must change or outcomes never will.

5. What do you believe is important about public education?

The promise that every child, not just those who have parents of means, can have the opportunity to learn and succeed, is essential to this country. Without it, we will all lose because we will have citizens who cannot reach their potential. Imagine being 80 years old in a country without public education, so there are not enough doctors to go around because only children of rich families were able to go to school. Children are a resource just like any other. To fail to prepare our children for the future is to cheat our country, and ourselves.

6. What do you believe is the current role of the SLPS Board of Education given the existence of a Special Administrative Board and the provisionally accredited school system? 

Though we cannot govern, we can still advocate, and we can prepare for transition. In other cities where citizens have been disenfranchised by removal of an elected board, and then it is returned to them, the ability of the Board to effectively return to governance correlates with the fact that a Board continued to exist and remain engaged in district affairs throughout the period of disenfranchisement. A sudden transition to a group of people who have not been involved and are “up to speed” is a recipe for failure.

7. What do you see as the role of charter schools in relation to and within the SLPS system? 

There is no need for them, except possibly as they were originally intended. A small school trying new techniques and approaches, with consent of the parents whose children are there, is a way to find new and innovative ways to teach. Currently, charter schools for the most part in St. Louis aren’t doing that. All they are doing is resegregating by setting up a parallel system to the public one. As an analogy, think of it like building another highway parallel to Highway 40 because some people don’t like the current exits and want their own highway with their own exits that only a few of them can use. It isn’t necessary or a good use of taxpayer dollars. It just separates one group of citizens from another.

8. What do you think are the positives and negatives of the current Missouri school accountability system (MSIP 5)?

I like the fact that we are now accrediting by building. I advocated for that change.

I like the fact that a district will no longer be able to be accredited without any points that actually pertain to educational outcomes; that is how SLPS under the SAB gained provisional accreditation.

The negatives will be in the way this plays out as the public reacts to the new standards and lower classifications many districts will get. We must guard against kneejerk reactions and sudden upheaval. Nothing will have really changed, only the description used.

9. Are you in favor of or opposed to accrediting schools and not districts? Why?

Yes. I believe families are done a great disservice when they live in a district which is given an unaccredited designation and they then assume they must move. When given a building by building designation, they can realize the situation is not so dire. The more families that the district attracts, the better it can be.

10. SLPS is currently provisionally accredited. The school system could become accredited or unaccredited. If the system doesn’t become accredited, what is your opinion of the Missouri DESE plan for student transfers from unaccredited to accredited school systems?

I think if they continue with that plan, they will need to make another plan for what to do when a district is no longer sustainable. There is no way for a district to recover once its funds are diverted to another district. The plan itself is not the problem. The law which requires the plan to exist is the problem.

11. What are your opinions about the current form of teacher tenure in SLPS? What do you think are its strengths and weaknesses? Would you support a strong teacher tenure system within the SLPS?

I truly go back and forth on this. I do not like the idea of tenure in general. I do understand the arguments for it and I see that it does attract excellent teachers to the district who leave places where they are not given tenure. I think many of the issues that are blamed on tenure, such as bad teachers remaining in the classroom, should instead be blamed on bad administration and failure to follow the due process that would remove a bad teacher, tenure or not.

12. The U.S. Congress needs to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (No Child Left Behind) this year. What changes would you advocate for in the next iteration of the legislation?

I would prefer that the federal government stay out of education and local issues. If it must stay in it, though, the idea that 100% of students must reach a certain level needs to change. That is unattainable.

13. Population loss in the City of St. Louis is often attributed to residents’ hesitation to send their children to St. Louis Public Schools. As a school board member, what tools are available to you to promote SLPS as a viable choice for parents? 

I have the strongest tool possible. My husband and I, both college-educated professionals, have sent our children to SLPS and we have been happy with their education. When other parents hear that, it makes a bigger impression than any slick flyer in a mailbox or radio ad ever will. As a board member, I have worked with other parents like me to form a Parent Ambassador group to help other parents understand there are good options in SLPS (options beyond Kennard, McKinley and Metro). I would not have sent my children to private schools over the SLPS schools they attended; I do not believe the education would have been better.

I have networked extensively among SLPS parents. Working together, we can assure parents who hesitate that SLPS can indeed be the place for their children.

14. SLPS has spent resources to provide an expanded pre-K program. What do you think about pre-K programs and, if you believe pre-K programs are important, how would you provide additional funding?

I think they are a good thing. I would advocate for the legislature to provide additional funding to support them.

15. What do you feel is the appropriate role of community/neighborhood input in determining which schools the SLPS must close? How should the SLPS determine which schools to close? What criteria should be used?

The community must be involved. If the budget requires closing schools, SLPS should look carefully at doing so in a way that the displaced students are moved to another school which is nearby and which does not have a drastically different culture. I would hope that no more schools must close. We already have too many students without a neighborhood school.

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