Public Education Crusader Calls It a Day
Nelson Mitten had just returned home from a Maplewood Richmond Heights School Board meeting when he turned to his wife and said, “I don’t need this.”
At that meeting, more than two decades ago, a fellow board member had publicly excoriated Mitten for “not caring” about the district. The rebuke drew applause from the huge crowd in attendance.
“I said to myself, ‘I have the financial wherewithal to move out of this district which is one point away from not being fully accredited,” says Mitten.
But as it turns out, the district definitely needed him.
In the late 1990s, MRH was in the throes of financial chaos and mismanagement. The district’s chief financial officer had bungled the handling of financial reserves, leading the board of directors to believe that the district had more cash on hand than actually existed. The oversight only came to light after a new CFO -- with actual accounting experience -- was brought on board and announced that the school system was in the hole to the tune of a million dollars. What’s more, the district was on the brink of being taken over by the state. MRH was meeting only 57 of the 100 criteria required for accreditation by the Department of Education.The college attendance rate: 60 percent.
The administrative offices and classrooms were a revolving door culture with teachers and principals coming and going like a racetrack pit stop. Eighth-grade students had seven teachers in a span of two years. High schoolers had six principals in one year.
Enter Nelson Mitten, a Cape Girardeau native and long-time attorney with Riezman Berger P.C. of Clayton. Before studying law, history and politics at Washington University and the University of Durham, England, Mitten was a product of the Cape Girardeau school system. His mother was an early and staunch supporter of public schools, run by citizens who were elected at the polls and held accountable to the taxpayers.
“My older brothers went on to become successful professionals, so the value of a public education was important to me,” says Mitten, who was just ten years old when his father passed away.
Mitten originally wanted to settle down in University City but was ultimately lured to Richmond Heights by the more affordable home prices. That’s when he first became interested in the plight of the Maplewood Richmond Heights School District, where kids from million-dollar homes rode to school alongside friends from subsidized housing. With more than a little nudging from his civic-minded wife, Mitten successfully ran for election to the MRH board in 1998.
From the beginning, little came easy. Mitten and a board colleague were seen as outsiders, young upstarts in a community where “Old Maplewood” was the preferred standard of living. But in a shock to his opponents, Mitten ran for board president and won -- very narrowly.
Job one was to call a closed executive session to fire the superintendent who was having improper relations with another administrator. The central office was purged and soon after that, an assistant superintendent was dismissed. Over a two-year span, Mitten endured public attacks, teacher sick-outs, and backlash from frozen salaries. He even struggled to win support from his own board to spend $10,000 to hire a highly-regarded search firm to identify candidates for the superintendent’s job.
“I had heard about this terrific assistant superintendent over in Clayton [School District], so I took her to lunch and she agreed to apply. The search firm agreed she was the best candidate,” recalls Mitten.
Mitten and Linda Henke clicked right away.
“She’s an unbelievably outgoing person. She could have written her own ticket in the education community.”
In the face of the public’s lingering distrust of the MRH board, Mitten knew that the vote to hire Henke had to be unanimous. It was. Henke had become the fourth MRH superintendent in five years. But one more hurdle existed, one that nearly derailed Mitten’s turnaround plan.
“The day after Linda was hired, she telephoned me in a panic. Her hand-picked choice to become the MRH assistant superintendent was about to be issued a blank check by Clayton Schools to keep her there.”
Acting without the knowledge of the rest of the board, Mitten and another board member raced to Clayton’s Captain Elementary School. “We negotiated a contract… on a napkin, I’m pretty sure. It was ‘no deal’ without her.”
Reforms came swiftly. Board members created an 80-member community group called PACT, which came with a promise to enact whatever the task force decided was necessary to right the ship. The district sold two buildings and consolidated operations inside the remaining three. By the time the district floated a tax and a bond issue in 2001, a great deal of trust had been restored: both measures passed, overwhelmingly.
In the classrooms, Henke made it clear that the choice of whether to do homework rested with teachers, not individual students. She launched a mentoring program for students who were being raised in non-traditional family settings. A “looping” system was initiated for grades K-8, under which teachers remain with their students for two school years.
Instead of renewing uninspired teachers, Henke went after what she described as “adventurers, people who are willing to try new ideas, be creative, and have a passion for diversity,” she told the St. Louis Business Journal in 2007.
As brighter days turned into months and then years, Nelson Mitten locked arms with Superintendent Henke while some critics locked horns. Henke was lambasted by some in the community for what they called her extravagant spending on artwork, furniture and district celebrations. Hogwash, says Mitten.
“The notion that Linda was not budget conscious is simply false. Most of the artwork was donated. That $10,000 couch? It was a 16-foot long industrial seating section which was in use for 15 years. It was not a ‘sofa,’” he says.
One of Mitten’s earliest goals, shared by Henke, was to devote ample resources to early childhood education. It was the basis of his reelection campaign in 2001. He laments to this day that he was unable to create a free universal early childhood program but is gratified that history is on his side.
“Pre-K education is where you get the biggest bang for your buck in terms of launching good students,” he says. “Research shows that it carries through year after year.
A decade after Mitten first came aboard, MRH students turned in a perfect score on Missouri’s Annual Performance Report. Voters were regularly giving their blessing to tax and bond issues for building expansion and operating expenses. Innovative teachers packed the classrooms. Other districts around the nation wanted to know what was in MRH’s secret sauce.
But there were bumps along the way. A stinging defeat came at the hands of the Quiktrip Corporation, which built a convenience store on the southeast edge of the high school athletic track. “The city’s support of locating a Quiktrip at that corner showed a serious lack of vision for a paltry increase in sales tax levels,” says Mitten.
In 2015, fewer than a dozen boys went out for the football team, so the program was disbanded. Some district residents still grumble to this day. Mitten says in retrospect, it was the right thing to do, given widespread concerns about sports-related head injuries and the inherent safety issues of fielding a team with too few players.
Early in his tenure, Mitten found himself having to broker a land purchase from the city of Maplewood, because no one had bothered to make sure that the district owned enough square feet of land to accommodate the new running track around the athletic field.
In his 21 consecutive years on the MRH board, Mitten served twice as treasurer and twice as president. In his very first term, he chaired the board’s policy committee. As an attorney, he demonstrated his skills at leveraging the law to protect the district’s best interests. So what is he most proud of? The emphasis on early childhood learning, the one-on-one [mentoring] program, Joe’s Place (a home for high school boys with no safe place to stay), and the focus on inclusiveness.
In the late summer of 2018, Nelson Mitten suffered a serious cardiac episode which put him out of action through the beginning of the new year.
“It’s time for me to step down,” says the man who had to be talked into running for one more term in 2016. “It made me want to cut back on some of the extracurriculars. Being a board member means reading trade journals, studying issues, paying attention to the news, doing workshops and meetings.”
Mitten recovered well and was able to attend half a dozen board meetings in 2019, sounding like his usual self but looking considerably trimmer. In mid-April, the MRH annual employee recognition banquet set aside a 20 minute window for distinguished honors for Mitten and his family, but the parade of speakers and well-wishers kept it going for 45 minutes. Stoic, composed and gracious, Mitten showered praise on MRH staff and choked up when he thanked his wife, State Representative Gina Mitten, for enduring what he called “the board widow” lifestyle.
He quotes the American philosopher and psychologist William James: “The greatest use of life is to spend it for something that will outlast it.”
“Plus, I have always wanted to learn to play the guitar. I’ve got one sitting at home waiting to be played.”
(On April 26, 2019, from 3 p.m. to 4:30 p.m., the MRH District will hold an informal cake-and-punch reception for Nelson Mitten at the Research and Design Center, 7539 Manchester Road, Maplewood, MO., 63143. The general public is invited.)
For more information, contact MRH School District at (314) 644-4400.