Why I Voted NO on Proposition S

On May 10, 2022, the Board of Education voted 4-1 in favor of placing a $160 million “no tax increase” bond issue called Proposition S on the August 2nd ballot. Of five voting members, I was the sole dissenting NO vote.

In Fall of 2019, the Board of Education was asked to begin considering school closures and consolidations, on the assurance that the money saved by closing several of our schools in the worst conditions would gain us the fiscal capability to reimagine our remaining open schools—capital improvements, building/technology updates, more support staff, mental health services, and increased student resources. This process took the Board a year and a half of planning and tough conversations with the community (and each other). After difficult deliberations, the vote was 4-3 in favor of closing seven schools. In the end, I voted against the school closures because I doubted our ability to deliver these educational enhancements. We now operate seven fewer schools, yet our annual revenue and expenditures have still increased from $388 million to $400 million dollars.

Now, with this bond issue we again come to the public, after closing their neighborhood schools, with our palms out asking for more money to fund a vast wishlist of problems that we should have already solved. There is no doubt our schools are in dire need of upgrades, and our students deserve better. But what did they get from us when we closed their schools? Are these citizens and students truly getting the public services they pay for?

As for the “no tax increase” language, I want to be very clear. Per state statute, each September, the Board of Education must vote to set the tax levy for the District. Approximately 60% of taxes collected in the City of St. Louis go toward funding Saint Louis Public Schools. While the tax levy is “not expected at this time” to increase in order to cover the cost of repaying the bond, the Board absolutely still has the authority to raise the tax levy, even as soon as one month after this bond issue appears on the ballot, and may do so any September in the future, whether related to the bond or not. It is also worth noting that schools are funded by local, county, state, and federal dollars, and the average budgets of school districts across Missouri are funded by approximately 55% local effort (property taxes), and the rest by county, state and federal funds. However, despite being one of the highest poverty districts in the state, an overwhelming ~80% of the SLPS budget comes from local property taxes.

Until we as a city and a society are able to implement an equitable system of taxation that does not place undue burden on our most marginalized residents—mostly poor, Black, and/or northside—I cannot in good conscience vote to tax them for services we repeatedly fail to deliver. And I will not be complicit in making promises we can’t keep. SLPS students and St. Louis City residents deserve better.

That said, I trust my fellow board members’ best intentions in placing Proposition S on the ballot. If Proposition S passes, I hope you will hold us all accountable for completing the projects we promise.

SLPS School Closure Vote – What Happened and How?

Earlier this week, the Board of Education voted to close seven* schools:
•  Clay Elementary
•  Dunbar Elementary
•  Farragut Elementary
•  Ford Elementary
•  Fanning Middle School
•  Northwest Academy of Law
•  Cleveland NJROTC Academy
•  Convert Carnahan from a high school into a middle school
•  Delay a decision on closing Sumner high school until March 2021
* The proposed closure list had originally also recommended Hickey, Monroe, and Sumner for closure and was a consent agenda item (12-15-20-01).

After fielding constituent calls/texts until nearly midnight after the meeting, and reviewing every comment on the SLPS YouTube channel livestream, it became clear that the Board did not go about this vote via the most efficient path and that there is some confusion surrounding the procedure and the vote itself. Here is what happened and how.

The original consent agenda item stated:
(12-15-20-01) Approval and to adopt the Superintendent’s 2020-2021 Consolidation and Closure Proposed School Action recommendations based on Transformation Plan 3.0, which includes the consolidation of schools: Clay, Cleveland, Dunbar, Fanning, Farragut, Ford, Hickey, Monroe, Northwest, Sumner, and Carnahan [for the 2021-2022 school year]
An amendment to the original motion to approve Item 12-15-20-01 was offered to remove the names Hickey and Monroe and to delay the decision on Sumner until March 2021.

The amendment received no second, and therefore could not be voted upon.

Another amendment was offered which would remove the names Hickey and Monroe, delay the decision on Sumner until March 2021, and add these three action items to the motion above:
•  Pass an aldermanic resolution on a moratorium on any new schools until there is a city-wide plan
•  Create a plan to address TIFs and tax abatements
•  Collaborate with the new mayor to create a city wide plan for schools and implement it by Fall 2021

I had two concerns with the proposal to obtain a moratorium on new schools (effectively, charter schools):
1. Alderpersons have no actual direct authority over charter schools; this is something that requires action by the state legislature.
2. Even if alderpersons had authority over charter schools, an aldermanic resolution is non-binding and wouldn’t result in an actual moratorium, and there’s no guarantee the Board of Aldermen would even pass such a resolution, simply because the school board requested it.
I proposed a motion to add a fourth action item which would instruct our District’s lobbyist to contact state legislators directly to push for legislation that would institute a moratorium on new charter schools in urban districts until there is a city-wide plan to address education needs of all St. Louis students.
My amendment was not seconded, and therefore could not be voted upon.

At that point in the process, parliamentary procedure required that the main motion (as amended) on the table must be voted on. No further (main) motions—such as a motion to leave all schools open—could be proposed, unless this motion failed.

The full amended motion now read:
Approval and to adopt the Superintendent’s 2020-2021 Consolidation and Closure Proposed School Action recommendations based on Transformation Plan 3.0, which includes the consolidation of schools: Clay, Cleveland, Dunbar, Fanning, Farragut, Ford, Northwest, and Carnahan [for the 2021-2022 school year], to delay the decision on Sumner until March 2021, and to commit to the following three actions:
•  Pass an aldermanic resolution on a moratorium on any new schools until there is a city-wide plan
•  Create a plan to address TIFs and tax abatements
•  Collaborate with the new mayor to create a city wide plan for schools and implement it by Fall 2021

Then the Board voted to approve the motion to make the proposed school changes and take the three recommended actions. The vote was 4-3, and the motion passed.

I voted NO.

I voted NO in the hope that the motion would fail, allowing the opportunity to offer alternative motions for consideration.

I agree that there are undoubtedly some schools on the list that are beyond saving. The students in these schools deserve the best SLPS can offer, and that includes upgrading them to a school building in better condition with more academic opportunities and services. However, the spirit and culture in some of the schools slated for closure in this vote are uniquely irreplaceable, and the impact of their closure is simply immeasurable to the students inside and the communities that surround them.

In my opinion, removing Hickey and Monroe from the closure list and delaying the decision on Sumner did not go far enough for our students—particularly northside students. If the motion to approve Item 12-15-20-01 had failed, I had hoped to propose a new motion which also included the concepts I have previously offered for discussion at public board meetings:
•  Keep Dunbar Elementary open. Since before I was elected to the Board, a strong community of supporters have rallied around Dunbar. This elementary school, so near the NGA development site and SLPS Vashon High School, could remain a hopeful anchor for the Jeff-Vander-Lou neighborhood as it looks optimistically toward an upswing, or possibly even dedicate some of its unused space to accommodate middle schoolers in the neighborhood.
Keep Carnahan High School as high school, at least for now. In their emails to myself and other board members, Carnahan students have shared profound academic turnaround experiences. They feel strongly that it should remain a high school so that other high school students who come behind them may have the same inspirations and opportunities they have enjoyed.
•  Commit to preserving the social justice programs and restorative justice practices unique to Northwest Academy of Law, even if the building itself is closed. As a trauma-informed school district which emphasizes equity, I believe we can find a way to offer Northwest’s curriculum to equip our students with the foundation they need to become effective advocates in the greater community beyond school grounds.

I appreciate the Superintendent and administrative staff who put in the time and research to compile data for the Board to consider as we weighed this decision. I thank and empathize with the teachers, staff, and families who suffered the anxiety of waiting for a final outcome while we delayed the decision an extra month. And I applaud the organizations, activists, elected officials, community members, and students who weighed in and offered concrete solutions and resources, whether it was early on in the process or up to the final hour.

With this difficult decision behind us, the Board must take concrete steps to ensure that we don’t find ourselves two years down the road, once again asking, “Which schools should we close?” To stay out of such a grim situation will require more than just the school board. Our neighborhood schools have suffered under years of disinvestment and neglect from the City and active attacks by the state legislature. It’s time for a true coordinated effort with City and State officials to address some of the underlying issues which got us to this point, such as:

  • Millions of dollars of revenues diverted from our schools by unregulated TIF/tax abatements
  • 12,000 untaxable properties held by the Land Reutilization Authority
  • Unfairly assessed/enforced property taxes, particularly on the northside
  • Unhealthy and combative competition with charter schools
  • Over-policing of poverty

Public schools are always expected to absorb the trauma inflicted on our families by all other branches of government and society. I am eager to work with any and all other entities to address and eliminate the root causes of that trauma, and I once again call on any and all elected officials or community advocates who want to collaborate in that effort. Please continue the conversation or join in now so that we can save not only Sumner but all of our remaining Saint Louis Public Schools.

Link to live-streamed meeting video:

Natalie stands next to a black hatchback full of groceries, wearing a protective mask, giving a thumbs-up.

Connecting with Community During COVID-19

This Friday, May 8th, we set a new record! I delivered groceries to 36 kids in 7 nearby northside neighborhoods—46 bags of food and 32 gallons of milk. This brings our total number of deliveries to 79 kids within three weeks! My arms are still sore, and I’m not sure if it’s from carrying grocery bags or waving back at people from their windows.

Since quarantine began, these weekly grocery deliveries have been my only ventures outside the house. I love being able to get back into the community, and I feel the most at-home when reconnecting with neighbors and meeting new friends—like Bandit the Dachshund! Bandit politely welcomes strangers (as long as they’re carrying his human’s groceries), and guards the food with fierce bravery. Good boy, Bandit!

As usual, BIG thanks to the dedicated Saint Louis Public Schools staff and Friendly Temple Church volunteers on the front lines distributing food at Langston Middle School!

I believe I’ve discovered the max grocery capacity for my car, but this Friday May 15th, I’m heading back out to pick up/drop off groceries for more students and families. Please text me at 314.467.0127 if you or a family you know need a food delivery (*first come, first served*). I will be in the Wells/Goodfellow, St. Louis area but can travel anywhere northside/westside St. Louis City for porch drop-off.

SLPS has 36 schools where any family may pick up one week’s worth of free groceries–no matter whether or not their children are enrolled in SLPS. Grocery bags include dairy, bread, fresh produce, proteins, and snacks.
Every Friday, 8am-12pm.

See www.slps.org/meals for more details and a full list of distribution sites.

A Dachshund looks up, standing on the front step in front of a red door, next to three bags of groceries on the porch.
Bandit politely welcomes strangers (as long as they’re carrying his human’s groceries), and guards the food with fierce bravery. Good boy, Bandit!
Natalie walks past a brick home carrying two gallons of milk and two bags of groceries, wearing a protective mask and yellow galoshes.
Six bags of groceries and five gallons of milk are stacked on a bench on a porch in front of a brick house.

Stability During A Surreal Spring Break

When class was dismissed on Friday, March 13, SLPS students were ready for Spring Break, but they didn’t expect so much bonus vacation time!  In the days since, the St. Louis community and people across the world have endured increasing disruptions to daily life as more news unfolds surrounding the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.

On March 16th, the St. Louis Board of Education held an emergency meeting via conference call, in compliance with Missouri Sunshine Law, and the break was extended until April 3rd, 2020.  SLPS and other St. Louis schools didn’t miss a beat in ensuring food access during uncertain times, providing free meals for students and $1 meals for adults at sites across the city.  By March 19th, a community partner stepped up to cover the cost of adult meals, so that all families are now able to obtain no-cost food provisions, no questions asked, at any school site across the City.

As of 6:00pm today, a Stay-At-Home Order took effect for the City of St. Louis, as announced by Mayor Lyda Krewson this weekend. This stay-at-home order directs all St. Louisans to remain in their places of residence unless obtaining necessary medical/grocery/veterinary supplies, conducting critical government business, or reporting to a job considered an essential service. If you must go outside or tend to necessary errands, please maintain a distance of at least 6 feet from your fellow humans and animals.

Schools will now remain closed until April 22nd, 2020. 

The risks and disruptions to our regular routines are very real. Below are some resources to help our community maintain stability and access to basic needs during quarantine. And maybe we can even have a little fun while we’re in forced proximity with our loved ones. As for me, I’ve just been catching up on school board work, stacking objects on my cat, Major, and tomorrow I’m having a virtual breakfast with otters!

If you’re worried, have any questions, or if you just get bored, feel free to send me a text or give me a call at 314.437.3111. Email me at Natalie.Vowell@slps.org.

Stay home. Stay safe, smart, smiling, and always learning!

    The District has established a direct hotline for students and parents requiring social and emotional support. The hotline can be accessed by calling 314-345-6900 or via email at studentservices@slps.org.
    The St. Louis Board of Education immeasurably appreciates our teachers, administrators, and staff who have been working round the clock to keep our schools and students safe.
    Meals are available free of charge for all St. Louis families, regardless of whether their children attend public, private, or charter schools. Here is a map of locations. These meals are “grab-and-go,” meaning students cannot stay at the school to eat them because of social distancing guidelines issued by state and local health agencies. For details on meal pickup and schedules, please visit https://www.slps.org/meals. UPDATE: in response to community requests, we have now added Oak Hill and Lexington Elementary as distribution sites.
    Missouri has cancelled required statewide assessments for the remainder the school year. This includes Grade-Level, End-of-Course and Alternate assessments. The Offices of College and Career Readiness (OCCR) and Quality Schools (OQS) will share more information and updates as soon as they become available. Refer to the DESE-related COVID-19 webpage for links to useful information.  If you have questions about assessment, send them to assessment@dese.mo.gov or call DESE at 573-751-3545.
    Passengers may travel on MetroBus and Call-A-Ride free of charge through March 31. (Fares will not be waived for MetroLink travel.) Customers using all other fare types can also refrain from using the farebox. This policy will be effective beginning March 21 and continuing through March 31.  All MetroBus passengers will be required to board and exit buses using the rear doors, except in cases where passengers require an accessible entrance at the front of the bus. Buses are running less frequently, so be sure to check routes and schedules.
    The Department of Social Services Family Support Division will extend Food Stamp/SNAP certification periods by six months for those re-certifications coming due in March, April and May. This action prevents Food Stamp benefits from ending during the COVID-19 pandemic. Applications for food assistance are being accepted online. More information and instructions available in this document.
    St. Louis volunteers have formed a new group, St. Louis Quarantine Support, and are coming together to take care of our at-risk population by helping out with every day errands like delivering groceries, picking up prescriptions, providing rides to the doctor, or walking dogs. Request assistance from with this short form. You can also volunteer your time or donate a few dollars if you’re able. Please note, this is a group of private citizens, not officially organized or endorsed by the St. Louis Board of Education or the City of St. Louis.
    Staff who are in need of social or emotional support are encouraged to access the free, confidential Employee Assistance Program (EAP) through United HealthCare via phone, 1-800-622-7276, or online: www.liveandworkwell.com. Additionally, UHC provides 24/7 phone or video virtual visits with a doctor ($0 co-pay):  www.uhc.com/virtualvisits.
    UPS and FedEx both have decided to suspend signatures on packages to minimize contamination and personal contact. You can manage your deliveries online
    You don’t need to be an Amazon Prime member to access family friendly movies and television. Customers only need to log in or create a free Amazon.com account to enjoy free family programming.
    While Spring Break is rejuvenating for our young scholars, this unexpected extended school closure period may disrupt the planned flow of learning. SLPS has created “Keep On Learning”, a resource for students and families while our kids are out of school. Visit www.slps.org/keeponlearning for interesting age-appropriate educational materials students might not have a chance to experience in the classroom.
    Your neighborhood library branch may be closed, but you can still access a wealth of information and entertainment without leaving the house. The St. Louis Public Library offers eBooks, audiobooks, and online learning opportunities for all ages. The Library also live streams story time via their Facebook page. All St. Louis Public Library services are free of charge for any St. Louis Public Library cardholder. If you don’t have a library card, you can obtain an eCard online, at no cost.
    Many museums are offering virtual tours online. Here’s a list of world-class museums you can visit without getting off the couch.
    The St. Louis Aquarium is hosting live sessions of its exhibits via their Facebook page.
    We understand not everyone has access to internet service or WiFi hotspots. Any parent of a child who does not have access to the internet can contact Charter/Spectrum at 844-488-8395 to receive free internet access for 60 days. This offer is for households with K-12 or college students.
    If there are other resources or services you require please check https://www.slps.org/resources or give me a call.

SLPS 2020 Legislative Agenda

On November 12, 2019, the St. Louis City Board of Education approved our Legislative Agenda for the 2020 legislative session.  It was important to me that we add specific language surrounding the issue of tax abatement/TIF reform, stopping the expansion of charter schools (unless sponsored by the local public school district), and–most critically–advocating for equitable real estate taxes to reduce homelessness among our students and families.

The full document, which includes all of our policy stances, can be viewed here: http://www.votevowell.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/2020-SLPS-Legislative-Agenda.pdf

Lifting Student Voices: Student Representation on the Board of Ed

Even when adults keep kids at the heart of our decisions, sometimes we forget to include them in the decision-making process. As the duly elected Board of Education has now returned to full governance of the district, we are able to make real changes to SLPS and incorporate student perspective in our work.

In September, I drafted a new bylaw for a student representative to serve on the Board of Education. At last night’s regular business meeting, the bylaw was voted upon, and I am pleased to report that it passed unanimously. An SLPS student may now join us as an official participant in all public board meetings and work sessions.




Student Representative – Selection and Duties

The board may include one Student Representative who shall be a resident of St. Louis City and a full-time high school student of the District, and shall be appointed by the Superintendent prior to the first regular business meeting of the board immediately following the first day of the school year.

The term of the Student Representative shall be from the date of appointment through the regular business meeting immediately preceding the last day of the school year in which he or she was appointed.

The Student Representative shall be a non-voting member entitled to full participation in all discussions during public regular business meetings and work sessions, within the bounds of the established parliamentary rules of order [B9358.2].

The Student Representative shall not attend any closed session meetings, nor any other session the board deems inappropriate.

The board retains full discretionary authority to suspend, revoke, terminate, or reinstate the Student Representative position at any time by a majority vote of the full board.


Legal: Sections 115.348, 162.581, 162.601, 162.203 RSMo.

Opposing Economic Inequity

September 24 Tax Levy Vote – Motion to set a total tax rate of $4.9949
YES: 6
Motion passed.

Each year in September, the Board of Education must approve the tax levy to submit to the City of St. Louis.

I will not be complicit in the perpetuation of an inequitable taxation rate which results in a heavier relative burden placed on northside/low income families.  The average percentage of a school board’s budget derived from local effort (property taxes) for most districts in Missouri is ~50%.  In St. Louis City—a high poverty district with over 80% of students qualifying for free/reduced lunch—over 70% of the SLPS budget comes from local effort.

With home ownership an ever receding possibility for many African-American and low-income families, inequitable real estate taxes contribute heavily to this barrier. When a family in St. Louis City (or Kansas City) is unable to afford their property taxes for three years, their home is auctioned off by the Sheriff to the highest bidder. If there are no bids, the home is seized by the Land Reutilization Authority, its occupants are evicted, and it is boarded up and removed from the tax rolls unless the LRA decides to sell it to another willing buyer. The LRA has accumulated over 12,000 properties via this system, the bulk of which have sat in idle disrepair for decades.

This high stakes state-legislated enforcement system applies specifically to St. Louis and Kansas City only and places more urban families at risk of losing their homes. Meanwhile, wealthier municipalities are left to self govern and determine their own timelines and penalties for delinquent taxes. As St. Louis City history has demonstrated time and again: empty neighborhoods mean empty neighborhood schools.

Until the State of Missouri gives SLPS the support we need, or until we as a district make measurable strides toward demanding this of our legislators and other City officials, I will not participate in this annual vote to perpetuate economic inequity.

Link to 09/24/19 meeting minutes: https://www.slps.org/cms/lib/MO01001157/Centricity/Domain/8808/9-24-19%20TaxRate%20and%20General%20Business%20Meeting%20Minutes.pdf

Back To School 2019

This week, Superintendent Dr. Kelvin Adams and I were invited to join host Shirley Washington on The Pulse of St. Louis to inform students and families about our preparations for their return to school. It is essential to reach our community through as many channels possible. We want to make sure everyone is fully informed on how to enroll in SLPS, what to expect from this year’s educational programs, new neighborhood safety partnerships, and the first school year in 13 years with an elected school board. We’re excited for a new year full of many firsts.

Another First For SLPS

An editorial for The St. Louis American by Natalie Vowell

Since its inception in 1838, the Saint Louis Public School District developed a reputation for forward-thinking, inclusive approaches to education. In 1873, we became the first district to offer public kindergarten; in 1875, we opened the first high school west of the Mississippi River for African American students; in the early 1900’s, we engineered the first open-air and accessible schools to ensure that no child affected by disease or physiological disadvantage was bereft of a chance at a quality education. 

St. Louis City is currently writing an unprecedented education comeback story.  On July 1, 2019, the St. Louis Board of Education made history by regaining elected control of our district after state intervention revoked the Board’s authority over a decade ago.  The 2007 loss of accreditation led to the installation of an appointed Special Administrative Board which would govern SLPS for the next 12 years. On April 16, 2019, the State Board of Education voted to restore governance to the duly elected Board of Education. We are now engaged in a high-stakes, high-reward endeavor to rebuild trust in our community, re-empower St. Louis citizens, and equitably manage a $400 million budget to effect positive change in the lives of over 20,000 SLPS students.  Presently, disenfranchised districts across the nation are looking to St. Louis as a model, and once again we are reclaiming our legacy of “firsts”.

As we resume governance, it is important to understand what a school board does and does not do; in fact, that was the first challenge the Board of Education itself had to confront.  The Board’s sole responsibilities are setting the District’s goals, vision, and hiring a superintendent who will carry out the procedures necessary to meet those expectations.  The Board should not directly manage district affairs but instead evaluate the superintendent in relation to student achievement and equitable outcomes. That is how the SAB has operated, and the Board of Education intends to support Superintendent Dr. Kelvin Adams and continue to build and improve upon that progress.

It is time to jettison the too-familiar, tired mention of the “dysfunction” inherent to an elected school board.  Grievously underemphasized have been the qualities of an effective board. The governance team driving SLPS’s narrative out of the past and into the future is comprised of parents, nonprofit professionals, former teachers and administrators, business executives, community leaders, volunteers, but﹘most importantly﹘seven people, chosen by the voters of St. Louis, who have exemplified dedication to serving the students of SLPS.

Sacrificing many nights and weekends over the past year through extensive training via collaboration with the National School Boards’ Association, the Missouri School Boards’ Association, the Special Administrative Board, the Superintendent and SLPS staff, the Board is prepared to break new ground at our first meeting as a governing body on July 9th.  We hope to see you, our rightful constituents, there to hold us accountable with great expectations and help pave the way for new milestones in public education.

The meeting will begin at 6:30 p.m. on July 9th, at Saint Louis Public Schools District Office, 801 N. 11th Street, St. Louis MO, 63101.