Once again, the St. Louis County School District has shown it has little interest in actually engaging the residents it’s supposed to be serving. For years, the district has operated more like a private club— insular and dismissive of anyone outside the “in” group— than a governmental body that’s supposed to be fair, impartial, and transparent.
The school district’s handling of the Tower-Soudan board seat vacancy was typical. As we report this week, after the death of Troy Swanson with fully six months remaining on his term, the school district took no action to appoint a replacement. And why would they? Tower-Soudan hasn’t been part of the in-group since the area voted 9-1 against the school district’s 2009 referendum. When Cherry school board member Lynnette Zupetz died two years ago, the school board appointed her replacement just two months later.
What’s more troubling is that the district failed to take the basic steps that most governmental bodies undertake as a matter of course when opting to fill a position. After the death of a member of a board or council, standard procedure is to advertise the vacancy as widely as possible to inform members of the public of the opportunity to engage in public service.
Yet, the school district never sought to appoint a replacement, so they never reached out to the public. And while Swanson’s seat was up for election in November, the only candidate filing notice published appeared prior to his passing and only appeared in the district’s Cook-based official newspaper, which doesn’t circulate at all in the Tower-Soudan area and has no functioning website that might make it possible for someone from outside the area to find it.
To be fair, the district did provide the notice on their website, but school district websites don’t provide anything close to the visibility of a newspaper, particularly for residents who don’t have kids in school or some other connection, like employment, with the school district.
And even if someone from Tower-Soudan actually saw the notice, it’s unlikely they would have recognized that their local seat was even up for election unless someone from the school district had tipped them off. The district’s filing notice only lists the various seats up for election by number, (not by the community name) so unless you know the number of your local school attendance area (don’t feel bad, we don’t know them, either) good luck understanding anything from the district’s notices. We couldn’t find a map showing the numbers of the attendance areas on the district’s website, nor could we locate one through Google. Apparently, unless you know the district’s secret handshake, your application for a seat on the board isn’t exactly welcome.
When asked about outreach, the district superintendent said school staff had been encouraged to talk to parents or other community members who expressed an interest in the school about running for the school board. Yet, neither school staff, school board members, nor school administrators should be serving as screeners for potential candidates to the board. You shouldn’t have to know someone at the school or at the district office to file for school board. The proper approach is to advertise the opportunity in a way that anyone in the community can easily find and understand, and let people run as they see fit.
The insular nature of the district has long been apparent in the fact that so many members of the school board over the years have either been former employees of the district or had spouses employed by the district. It seems the district likes to keep things all in the family.
The same holds true, at times, in their selection of vendors. For nearly half a century, the school district has used the same official newspaper, without even soliciting quotes from other qualified newspapers, even ones that would be far more effective in getting information out to district residents. A couple years ago, a few brave board members, including Swanson, supported naming the Timberjay the district’s official newspaper, citing its much larger and broader circulation within the school district and its professional website that allows any member of the public full access to all current and archived public notices.
Yet, because this was ISD 2142, which views its taxpayer dollars like club funds which it can lavish on its buddies without concern about fairness, accountability, or value, the motion was voted down.
That’s what happens when you’re not with the “in” crowd.
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