St. Louis City School Board

Natalie Vowell

Age: 38

Neighborhood: Mark Twain/I-70 Industrial

Occupation: Nonprofit Executive

Political experience: St. Louis City Board of Education Member – 2017-present; Executive Committee, Missouri School Boards’ Association – 2019-present; Democratic National Convention Delegate – 2016, 2020; DNC Convention Rules Committee Member – 2020

Your take on opening schools during COVID-19: I stood with the teachers who were overwhelmingly willing to take on the new challenge of virtual learning in order to keep their communities safe. I was against the district’s initial hybrid response as the worst of both worlds, requiring the expense and learning curve of new technology, but not eliminating the unavoidable close-contact risk of classrooms. I fully empathize with the teachers and students who have expressed trepidation about returning to in-person learning. In addition to following CDC and local Health Department guidelines, I believe the Board should consider our teachers’ and families’ personal comfort level highly relevant to when and how we reopen schools to “normal.” We should seek formal input from families and educators to ensure adequate precautions are taken. We must also be sensitive to varying levels of anxiety among our staff and students and offer additional safety accommodations to those individuals who need them. 

Your take on the use and closure of existing school properties: Although I voted against the latest round of school closures, I trust my fellow board members’ final majority vote and will work to maximize our newly freed resources to enhance student experiences across the City. SLPS is a high poverty district with a dwindling city population. The health of our education system is dependent on more than just our schools. Our municipal government often unwittingly functions via systemic racism and punishes poverty with more poverty. Our state legislature scrambles annually to remove autonomy and resources from urban areas. I am strongly in favor of a comprehensive citywide plan, and have already been in discussion with alders and state legislators. However, many of them seem to have lost interest in the project once the closure vote happened. I hope to revive those conversations to ensure regional leaders are still willing to work in partnership with SLPS. 

Your take on reducing crime and violence in the school system: To be clear, SLPS schools are the safest place for our students. None of the tragic gun deaths of children over the past few years have occurred at schools in session. However, that does not mean we should over-rely on law enforcement, nor ignore their role as a source of trauma, and the school to prison pipeline. Schools should aim to prevent/heal trauma, not create more of it, and we should absolutely seek to shift more resources from law enforcement to mental health professionals. I find the district’s data collection of security interactions with students lacking and I have requested major upgrades of those standards. A significant portion of our students have a parent or sibling incarcerated. I strongly support the decriminalization of poverty and victimless offenses. 

Your take on ending inequity within the school district: Nearly 75% of SLPS’ budget comes from “local effort” (property taxes), and the rest is state and federal funds, compared with an average of only ~55% local effort in school districts across Missouri, many of which are more affluent. Compared to the rest of Missouri districts, St. Louis City residents face the highest consequences when they are unable to afford their property taxes: a brutal asset forfeiture system imposed by the state legislature which, since 1971, has ripped homes from 100 or more citizens every year, primarily northside.  Unreasonable fines from the Building Division are thrust upon on low income homeowners, primarily northside, for inability to afford home repairs. Approximately 1600 people per year, primarily northside, are arrested for little more than an inability to afford new tags or tickets for broken tail lights. Our local government is steadily penalizing poverty with more wealth extraction in communities where resources are the scarcest, creating more trauma for our schools to address. We seem insufficiently aware of the source of our revenue, people. And whether the people hit hardest, primarily northside, are truly getting the same services we offer those with more comfortable socioeconomic status. The high vacancy rates, lack of investment, struggling neighborhood economies, and closure of schools would indicate they are not. Even the best education for our Black and Brown students cannot counteract a broken system stacked against Black and Brown adults.

Staff is home to The NorthSider and The SouthSider weekly community newspapers. The SouthSider publishes 25,000 copies every Tuesday. The NorthSider publishes 25,000 copies every Thursday. They are distributed at over 600 locations across St. Louis.

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