Ferguson schools seek new leader, healing after Brown death

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FERGUSON, Mo. (AP) — The Ferguson-Florissant School District's search for a new superintendent began long before the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown.

But the district's approach in selecting its next leader suggests that the event nearly six months ago and the unrest that followed remains very much at the forefront. School officials say they're keenly aware that community members remain skeptical of public officials, from police to politicians.

Bucking the preferred approach by many school systems — including public universities — in Missouri and beyond, the district has announced the names and qualifications of two finalists: Bryan Davis of Columbus, Wisconsin, and Joseph Davis of Plymouth, North Carolina.

Transparency has always been very important," board president Rob Chabot said. "The superintendent is often the face and voice of any school district."

The two men —one white, one black — met with district employees, community leaders, students and parents at three different events Friday. Those came after a news conference and a community forum Thursday night.

Joseph Davis, who is black, said he was drawn to the challenge of restoring public faith in a school system that serves 11,000 students from nine communities, including neighboring Ferguson and Florissant.

"We have to have these honest conversations about race," he said.

Bryan Davis emphasized his work with black and Native American students in rural Wisconsin and pledged to "help move the community forward" and "change the national tone of what Ferguson is."

Taking the reins of the district, of which the start of school was delayed for nearly two weeks after Brown's deaths, means facing tough challenges and dealing with the fallout from the previous superintendent's departure, which led to angry protests and criticism.

Art McCoy was suspended and later resigned in March 2014. The details were never disclosed, but the St. Louis Post-Dispatch previously reported the board was investigating whether McCoy shared online access to the district's computer system with a former board member who had left office. Some supporters of McCoy, who is black, also suggested that race may have played a role.

The north St. Louis County district also faces an American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit filed over its at-large voting system, which the group says violates the federal Voting Rights Act. The elected school board has only one black representative among its seven members; roughly 80 percent of the district's students are black.

The lawsuit was filed in December, after race relations became subject to intense scrutiny following the shooting death of the unarmed 18-year-old Brown, who was black, by a white Ferguson police officer.

On top of that, the district is in danger of losing its state accreditation for the next academic year after declining student test scores led to it being placed on provisional accreditation in 2014.

Chabot noted that the finalists in the previous search also met the community in advance. But such early notice of the names of finalists is the exception rather than the rule, said Brent Ghan, spokesman for the Missouri School Boards Association.

"Most of the time, school boards would keep finalists confidential," Ghan said.

As with corporate searches, school districts usually prefer to err on the side of caution, Ghan said, fearful that an open search could scare away qualified candidates who don't want their current employers to know about their seeking new opportunities elsewhere.


Follow Alan Scher Zagier on Twitter at http://twitter.com/azagier

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