This 35,000-word look at recent efforts to reform the St. Louis school system is part of a larger work-in-progress on public education. Peter Downs, the author, is a veteran journalist and the elected president of the St. Louis school board.
THIS IS REFORM?
The plot to kill public education in an American city
By PETER DOWNS
In 2003, St. Louis, Mo., embarked on a unique experiment in public education. A “dream team” of civic leaders, handpicked by the mayor and financed by the leaders of the largest corporations doing business in the city, took control of St. Louis Public Schools. They aimed to operate the school system like a business and they figured that the best way to do that was to put a business in charge of the school district.
The “dream team” — a former mayor, a hospital executive, president of the state historical society, and a longtime aide to the most prominent Republican family in the state — promptly contracted with Alvarez & Marsal to manage St. Louis Public Schools for one year. Alvarez & Marsal sent William Roberti, a former CEO of the Brooks Brothers chain of clothing stores, to St. Louis to act as the superintendent of schools. Neither Roberti nor anyone else in the company had any experience in education. The company’s specialty was as a bankruptcy consultant — they maneuvered troubled companies through the bankruptcy process.
Alvarez & Marsal operatives Roberti and Sajan George, the latter functioned as the district’s chief financial officer, quickly announced that the school district was nearly bankrupt. They said that if they did not take drastic action, the operating budget of the district would show a $73 million deficit at the end of the June 2004 (the district’s fiscal year runs from July 1 to June 30). Take drastic action they did. With advice from the Broad (rhymes with “road”) Foundation, they closed one-seventh of the district’s schools (16 in number), outsourcing several key departments, and laid off 23 percent of the district’s employees (over 1400 people).
At the end of his yearlong tenure the school system was in worse shape financially than Roberti had predicted it would be if he did nothing. Buried in Roberti’s year-end self-congratulatory assessment to the board of education was a note that instead of leaving the district $73 million in the hole, he was leaving it down $87.7 million. Sure, he had reduced the deficit in the operating budget to $38.2 million, but he did it by borrowing $49.5 million from the state’s desegregation program, a loan that would have to be paid back over the next five years. His prescription for re-attaining financial stability was that the shrinking school district in a shrinking city should attract more students.
Clearly, many of the changes Roberti imposed on the district, with the support of the school board and the state commissioner of education, were about something other than saving money. Roberti’s most dramatic “reforms,” the replacing of employees with private contractors in a practice called “outsourcing,” did not cut spending, but at best only shifted it.
As bankruptcy consultants — they preferred to be called “turnaround experts” — the operatives of Alvarez & Marsal were expert in the practice of outsourcing in private businesses, but it was the Broad Foundation that provided the ideological underpinning for wholesale outsourcing in public education. The Broad Foundation openly proclaimed on its Web site at the time that giving tax-paid vouchers to private schools was the best public policy for educating nation’s children. Admitting that private schools could not absorb all children, however, the Broad Foundation Web site stated that the foundation also had a goal of reforming public schools along business lines. Shortly after the mayor’s team were elected to the St. Louis school board in 2003, they began getting training from the Broad Foundation on how to remodel the district along business lines and they welcomed two Broad advisors into the district’s administration to work along side of Alvarez & Marsal.
The public in St. Louis at first embraced the promise of dramatic change. On April 8, 2003, a slate of school board candidates backed by St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay (and by $443,000 of mostly corporate money) had swept over 15 other candidates to take all four of the school board seats that were up for election. The vote totals for those four candidates ranged from approximately 12,000 votes for Bob Archibald, the historical society president, to more than 16,000 for Vincent Schoemehl, the former mayor. The next highest group of candidates, the Coalition for Excellence in Education slate, which spent about $3,000 on the campaign, drew from 3,500 to 4,500 votes. It too campaigned on the need to dramatically improve St. Louis public schools. Promises of change resonated because of the long-term fall-off in the reputation of St. Louis public schools.
Modern attitudes about public schools in St. Louis have been shaped by one key event: desegregation. That event has attained almost mythic status in the story of St. Louis. The period before desegregation — the 1950s and ’60s — is widely depicted as a golden age for schools and neighborhoods. The legend is that nearly everyone did well in school and nearly all neighborhoods were safe and stable. One commonly held view among white St. Louisans is that desegregation broke up neighborhood schools, and thereby shattered the stability of white, ethnic neighborhoods. There is a commonly held view among black St. Louisans that desegregation drained the best black students out of black schools and black neighborhoods, thereby breaking the school and shattering the stability of black neighborhoods. White flight? That was because of desegregation. The flight of the black middle class? Desegregation did that. That’s the legend. The reality was far different.
It was the misfortune of those parents and civil rights advocates who were fighting for equal education that their suit against separate and unequal schools in St. Louis came at the beginning of a wave of corporate disinvestment in the city’s industry. Concerned Parents of North St. Louis, led by Minnie Liddell, filed a lawsuit against the city school system and the state of Missouri in 1972, charging that they maintained a system of segregated schools. The U.S. District Court for Eastern Missouri took over supervision of St. Louis Public Schools in 1975, and did not relinquish it until 1998.
By the time Minnie Liddell filed suit, the burst of white flight to the suburbs was already tailing off. Between 1950 and 1970, the population of suburban St. Louis County increased by over half a million people, more than doubling from 406,000 to 952,000, while the population of St. Louis City fell by 28 percent, or 238,000 people, from 856,796 to 619,269. That shift was not simply the result of thousands of unrelated family decision.
Disinvestment in the urban core was in full swing while whole neighborhoods picked up and moved to new developments in St. Louis County under the impact of developers’ blockbusting tactics tied to the re-creation of neighborhoods far from the supposed “menace” of Negroes. Developers re-created the same street patterns and street names as in the north St. Louis neighborhoods they were targeting, even re-creating churches and other social features of neighborhoods. White neighbors moved in mass from one neighborhood in the city to another in the newly built suburbs. They left behind cheap housing, and in so doing undercut the property tax base that support both the schools and city services.
Although Liddell and other parents filed their lawsuit in 1972, busing was not ordered until 1980. In the meantime, in the words of urban planner Richard Ward, vice president, Zimmer Real Estate Services, “population growth had fallen off the table.” Industrial disinvestment decimated St. Louis during that decade. General Motors, for example, moved the Corvette assembly line to Kentucky and closed its truck assembly line. The number of workers at the General Motors assembly complex in north St. Louis city fell from near 12,000 to under 2,000. The better jobs in the plants, including skilled trades jobs, only opened up to African-Americans in 1970 following a protest by CORE and black workers that partially shut the plants down in 1969. When GM closed the plants and moved the work elsewhere, many of the workers in St. Louis had rights under the United Auto Workers contract to follow GM jobs to new cities. Many of those who had fought long and hard to get into better positions did just that. General Motors was emblematic of a trend in which a wide variety of manufacturing companies participated. Carter Carburetor, General Cable and other companies, from heavy manufacturing to light industry such as hats and clothes, closed factories in St. Louis. According to Ward, the metropolitan region as a whole lost 190,000 people during the ‘70s as people followed jobs to other parts of the country or left the city to search for jobs. St. Louis city experienced the lion’s share of the loss, losing another 166,000 people on top of those who had left the city in the ’50s and ’60s. The large migration away from St. Louis in search of work shredded and destabilized neighborhoods before the first buses rolled to carry black children to white neighborhoods to integrate schools.
By the time the U.S. District Court ordered busing to desegregate St. Louis Public Schools, the student population was 80 percent African-American and the city’s population had plummeted nearly 50 percent from its 1950 peak of 857,000 people. Unfortunately for school children and equal education advocates, the city’s and region’s economic decline would continue for the two decades that St. Louis Public Schools would remain under court supervision. Again according to Ward, the metro region lost a net 83,000 residents in the 1980s and another 45,000 in the 1990s — a total loss of 128,000 residents — and most of the net loss was in St. Louis city, where the population feel by 104,600 residents during that time.
The economic decline of St. Louis sapped the tax base for schools and hollowed out neighborhoods, problems that the school system would have had difficulty in dealing with in any case, regardless of desegregation. The hollowing out of neighborhoods meant that some amount of busing probably would have been necessary to transport children to school anyway. In the context of desegregation, however, all busing was seen as racial. Meanwhile, the collapse of the tax base made it difficult, if not impossible, to fund improvements needed in segregated African-American schools or provide the kind of extracurricular programs enjoyed in wealthier suburban districts. The school buildings, most of which were built between 1900 and 1920, did not get the consistent maintenance they needed to keep them in good repair. The challenges of maintaining buildings and educating children were made even more difficult by city and state development policies that sought to reverse corporate disinvestment by waiving school taxes, or letting developers pocket them, if businesses would keep jobs in place or add new ones.
Just as desegregation has become confused with economic decline, segregation has become confused with an educational Eden. The “golden age” of public education in St. Louis is supposed to be the decades of the 1950s and the 1960s. Many a politician lamenting the supposedly sorry state of public schools today will recall, depending on his or her age, when he or she was in school in the 1950s or 1960s and St. Louis Public Schools were “the best in the nation.” They forget, however, or never knew, all the children who were never let through school doors or never made it to graduation. Their nostalgia wraps the past in a golden haze.
Liddell and the Concerned Parents of North St. Louis did not sue St. Louis Public Schools because it was the best in the nation. They did not sue St. Louis Public Schools because the schools were doing a great job educating African-American students, far from it. They filed suit because St. Louis Public Schools and the State of Missouri were not giving black children access to the same educational opportunities and to the same quality of education that they were giving white children.
Public schools in the 1950s and 1960s did not attempt to educate everyone through 12th grade, and black students were more often “counseled” out of school early than white students, although students of both races were pushed to leave school before graduation if they were not deemed to be college material. John Martin, former superintendent of Grandview (Missouri) Public Schools and deputy superintendent of St. Louis Public Schools in 2006 and 2007, graduated from St. Louis Public Schools in the 1960s. He recalled that when he was going to school, the goal of the school system was to sort students. There was even a path labeled “terminal education” for students not deemed to be graduate material. Once such students hit age 16, the school system handed them a certificate stating that they had gone to school until they were 16 and waved goodbye.
Not surprisingly, neither the dropout rate nor the graduation rate was then of much of a concern. Nationally, only 43 percent of white students graduated from high school in 1957, for example, and only 18 percent of black students did so. By 2002, that was up to 89 percent and 79 percent, respectively. Of the 5,795 eighth grade students in St. Louis Public Schools in the 1954-55 school year, only 3,308 (57 percent) attended 12th grade four years later. It is unknown how many actually graduated from high school, also unknown is the number of high school students who were black, for the school board did not report those numbers.
Special education was not a great concern then, either. St. Louis Public Schools were pioneers in special education, but the extent of services were nothing like those offered today. The school district had provided education for “deaf mutes” since 1878 and at the urging of Superintendent Soldan opened its first three special schools (actually rooms within regular schools) in 1908. In 1912, the school district took over an Open Air School for children exposed to tuberculosis. In 1925, the school district opened two schools for orthopedically disabled students: the Elias Michael School for white children and the Charles Henry Turner School for black children. For decades, that is where it stood: the school district offered some educational opportunities to students who were blind, deaf, or othopedically disabled, but many children with disabilities were kept at home and not allowed in school at all. Congress did not mandate education for children with disabilities until 1980, and public education for autistic children did become law until 1994.
In 1958-59, roughly 2 percent of the district’s 99,000 students were in special education, which even for the blind, deaf, and other disabled stopped at eighth grade. In 2005-06, 16 percent of the district’s 35,000 students were in special education, a category that now included a host of behavioral and learning disabilities, including autism.
Pregnancy was another reason to exclude someone from school. The teen pregnancy rate was much higher in the ’50s and ’60s than it has been in the 2000s. Nationally, nearly 10 percent of teenagers aged 15-19 gave birth in 1957, and most of them dropped out of school. St. Louis public schools segregated those pregnant teens that wanted to remain in school into their own building, most girls simply dropped out. In the 2000s, the teenage birth rate was at historical lows. Fewer than 5 percent of teenagers age 15-19, only 4 out of 100, gave birth in 2005, and staying in school was much more accepted than it was 50 years before.
In short, the supposed “golden age” of public schooling in St. Louis was a time when public schools were not for everyone. It was a time when public schools excluded those children who were most different from the cultural ideal: those too dark of complexion, sexually active, or learning disabled. Public schools existed, in Martin’s words, to “sort” children before educating them. One is left to wonder if the nostalgia of some politicians and businessmen for that golden age is a nostalgia for sorting, a nostalgia for schools that are less inclusive and less patient and determined to give everyone opportunities. Certainly, if judged by the modern standard of persistence to graduation, public schools in the supposed golden age were not particularly successful at all.
Facile dismissals of public schooling overlooked the very real progress that was occurring in St. Louis Public Schools, even from a much narrower point of view than the democratic goal of providing educational opportunities to all. In the last year of judicial control, 1998, the city school district had earned a score of 23 on the state’s 100-point accreditation scale. Forty-one points were necessary for provisional accreditation, 66 for full accreditation. The state education department did nothing, however, because of the role of the federal court. Over the next five years, under the direction of Superintendent Cleveland Hammonds, the school district’s performance increased steadily until, in 2002-2003, it earned 64 points, only two points short of full accreditation. During that time, the district brought the dropout rate down from 21 percent to less than 8 percent; raised the performance of elementary school children on the state’s new standardized tests every year; and narrowed the “achievement gap” between black and white students.
Perceptions tend to lag reality, however, and it was the dismal report from the State in 1998 that was continually replayed in the news media, not the progress the district had made since then. Despite the huge appetite for change, however, the community reacted sharply against the corporate-backed school board people realized the changes they wanted to make were negative ones.
It is 6:45 a.m. on May 30, 2003, and hundreds of people already are packed into the small lobby of the St. Louis Public Schools headquarters building at 801 N. 11th Street or waiting outside the entrance unable to get in. Word had gotten out that the school board planned an early morning meeting to outsource management of the school district to a private, for-profit company and the crowd had gathered to oppose it. Thus, only five weeks into their term of office, the corporate-backed school board gave birth to the opposition to their plans to remodel public education along business lines.
The school board seemed taken aback by the size of the protest. They had planned to meet in room that could accommodate maybe40 spectators. The state’s open meetings law required that they move the meeting to a room large enough to handle the turnout. The 7 p.m. meeting time came and went while they made preparations to move the meeting to a larger room. Even after the move to a larger room, many people were left to fume out in the hallway or in the packed lobby, blocked by security guards from entering the room. Not that it made any difference in the board’s conduct. To the crowd inside the seminar room, the meeting was little more than a pantomime. The majority of the board did little more than whisper so the crowd could not hear them. They had not set up any kind of microphone and speaker system to amplify their remarks for the crowd, but even people in the front row, a bare eight feet from the board, had to strain to catch their comments. Only Rochell Moore spoke aloud for all to hear. She demanded to know how the district was to pay for the $5 million contract with Alverez & Marsal. “We don’t have any money,” she declared. “How are you going to pay for this?” No one answered her. The majority moved to cut off discussion and approve the contract. Within 10 minutes of opening the meeting, they had adjourned.
The corporate-backed members of the school board would continue to underestimate the depth of opposition to their business model for St. Louis public schools. As each of Mayor Slay’s handpicked board members would come up for re-election (two of them had been elected for three-year terms and two for four-year terms), the voters would toss them out and replace them with candidates who pledged to undo their business model and the privatization of school services. The mayor would respond to the voters’ repudiation of his schemes by invoking the nuclear option: he would call on the state nullify the action of the voters and takeover the school district. A little more than four years after he participated in the decision to hire a management company to run the school district, Schoemehl would say on an Urban League program that aired on television that he expected opposition to the plan, but he never expected the opposition to last.
At that May meeting, the outlook for an ongoing opposition to corporate plans for St. Louis public schools was not auspicious. The people who objected to outsourcing the school district to a private business knew they were underdogs. The forces arrayed behind the school board included the mayor and his political machine, two committees representing the largest corporate employers in the region and dozens of smaller, but still large “mid-cap” companies, and the daily newspaper.
Yet, the core of the opposition shared an alternative vision of public education that motivated them to keep the pressure on the school board and eventually wrest control from the mayor and his corporate allies. They held a communitarian sensibility towards public education that contrasted sharply with the individualistic sensibility advanced by the mayor, the newspaper, and the corporate community. The corporate-backed business model for St. Louis schools rested on the assumption that public schools exist simply to provide an education service to individuals. For his part, Roberti said that he saw no problem with imposing a business model on the school system, likening each school to a retail store and teachers to retail clerks. Of course, sales clerks aren’t expected to make sales to every single person who walks through the doors of the store. Teachers, however, are expected to “sell” (teach) to every single student who comes into their classrooms.
The alternative model was a community-based model of public education. Proponents of community-based schools recalled that the reason that communities collect taxes to pay for education is in order to improve the community. The goal is the betterment of the community and the method is the education of children and youth. The education of children is important, but it is to be done in concert with the community so that the community benefits together with the children; education is not meant to be at the expense of the community. Proponents of the community-based model did not abjure effective business practices, but wanted the good of the community to guide the use of such practices rather have business practices define what is good for the community.
In the community-based business model for public schools, the school is the center and anchor of the community. For proponents of community-based schools in St. Louis, several important policies flowed from that state:
• small, neighborhood schools were preferred over large schools;
• the school building should not be just a house for education, but a house for community services;
• all school staff have a role in mentoring children and fostering a positive educational atmosphere;
• everyone on a school staff is a valuable member of the community and should be treated with respect and paid a living wage;
• there should be a relatively small spread between the wages of the lowest paid worker and the salary of the highest executive;
• each school should be able to adjust teaching styles to the learning styles of the specific community of children the school serves; and
• education is essentially a community responsibility. If parents are unable or unwilling to help a child learn, the community still has a responsibility to see that that child has opportunities to get a good education and supportive adults to help him or her.
In the individualistic business model, the school is simply a place to offer education services and the location is unimportant except in tradition business terms such good access to customers. Proponents of the individualistic business model had a distinct set of policy prescriptions:
• large schools were preferred over small, neighborhood schools;
• the school is house for education services only, nothing else;
• the only staff important in the educational process are the classroom staff and their supervisors;
• non-classroom jobs, particularly custodial, maintenance, and food service jobs, should be filled as cheaply as possible and outsourcing is a viable tool for cutting costs by cutting wages and benefits.
• while depressing the wages of the lowest paid workers, the executive salaries should be raised significantly to compete with corporate-level executive salaries;
• a mass production model in which all students are taught the same regardless of their needs or learning styles will lower costs;
• education is essentially a family responsibility — good consumers will purchase good services, poor consumers won’t. Families wanting anything other than the basic level of service offered in public schools can purchase premium service or extra services from other providers.
An extension of the individualistic business model holds that it does not really matter who provides the education service: a public school, a charter school, or a private school. So, government should make payments available to any provider a family chooses. Within that vein, Mayor Slay and board members Schoemehl and Archibald were avowed advocates of charter schools and Slay and Schoemehl also publicly supported tax-credit vouchers for private schools.
Under the community-based model, it does matter. Only public schools are rooted in particular geographical communities and dedicated towards improving those communities. Proponents of community-based schools said that families have the right to choose to send their children to school wherever they wanted, but also that only those schools that have the mission of improving their communities regardless of race, sex, religion, or income, should get public funds. In short, public funding was not just to educate children, but to educate children in concert with improving the community.
The battle between individualism and community in education is not a classic conservative-liberal confrontation. Many of the strongest voices in the African-American community in favor of community-based schools pointed to the city’s desegregation plan as the opening wedge of the individualistic business model that led to the reign of Alvarez & Marsal. The St. Louis desegregation plan provided the opportunity for some, but by no means all, city African-American students to apply to enroll in a county school district. “They should have demanded more resources for black schools instead,” was the view that Lizz Brown came to hold. Brown was a radio talk show host, who emerged as the central leader in galvanizing the African-American community against the corporate-backed business model for public education.
Brown often pointed out that 1980 was not 1954. In the 26 years following the historic Brown v. Board of Education school desegregation case from Topeka, Kan., activists for equal educational opportunities for black children should have learned the shortcomings of their 1954 strategy. Brown would quote Thurgood Marshall, the NAACP lawyer in the 1954 case, saying he never expected resistance to school desegregation to last more than a year or two. Nor could he have expected that automobiles and President Dwight Eisenhower’s highway program would pave the way for white flight from cities, the explosive growth of suburbs, and the deindustrialization of the old urban cores. She argued, in essence, that by 1980 the progressive impulse of the 1954 school desegregation case had been knocked askew. The manner in which the desegregation movement sought to handle white flight and suburbanization in St. Louis — a “choice” program that would let individual African-American students choose to attend school in a suburban school district while living in the city — would ultimately work against the very goal that she thought Thurgood Marshall was fighting for, the goal of improving the lot of the black community.
Although the St. Louis desegregation plan initially did provide for some state funding to augment a bond issue to repair buildings, Brown and other community-based school proponents argued that in sum the desegregation plan produced a massive transfer of state spending from city schools to suburban schools, which aggravated inequalities in spending between mostly black city schools and mostly white suburban schools. The desegregation plan gave white, suburban school districts a bounty for each African American student they agreed to accept from the city. The bounty was so great that for a time suburban districts agreed to kick back part of their windfall to the city school district to help cushion it from its loss of revenue. The State of Missouri paid the suburban districts an amount equal to their claimed per pupil cost for every African-American student they accepted from the city, instead of the lower state per pupil appropriation that was normal — an amount that totaled over $100 million a year — and paid for the transportation to get African-American students to and from suburban schools. Different, discriminatory rules applied to the city. The city school district not only got no help to pay for transporting African-American students to city magnet schools, for example, as ordered by the federal judge. The state education department actually penalized the city school district for providing such transportation. The state department of education ruled that such transportation was “inefficient” and deducted approximately $4 million a year from the state appropriation due to city schools to penalize the city school district for offering transportation to and from magnet schools.
Look further into the details of the desegregation program, and more devils of discrimination in favor of majority white, suburban districts emerge. Hammonds, the city school superintendent from 1997-2003, said suburban districts could pick and choose which students to accept from those that applied to the transfer program. They did not have to accept anyone who had any discipline problems on their record, for example. They could recruit and pick a star high school football or basketball player over an average student. Since the student counts on which state funding was based were taken in September and January, suburban districts could and often did return to the city schools in February any student they had problems with, whether behavior or academic, he said. The suburban school districts got to keep the full year’s state funding for those students, while city schools got nothing, he said. And, since state testing was in March and April, the city schools then got responsibility for those students’ test performance. Diana Bourisaw, school superintendent from 2006-08, added that suburban school districts classified many more students from the city as special education students than the city classified as special education students. Despite their screenings, suburban districts classified over 25 percent of transfer students from the desegregation program as special education students, while city schools classified only 16 percent of their students as needing special education services. Once suburban schools classified a city transfer student as a special education student, city schools had to reimburse suburban schools for the special education costs.
St. Louis Alderman and former state Representative Charles Quincy Troupe pointed out that the African-American student transfer program came at a time when all the districts involved, city and county, were facing declining enrollments. The transfer program let suburban districts stabilize their enrollments — they had full control of how many African-American students they would accept — and get a state subsidy to modernize facilities, or build newer facilities to replace older ones. Over two decades, the state poured an extra $3 billion into the majority white suburban districts participating in the program. Meanwhile, the transfer program pulled more students out of the already shrinking St. Louis Public School system. At its peak, over 13,000 students, about one-fourth of the enrollment in city schools, were bused everyday from St. Louis to suburban schools, putting more pressure on the city school system to close schools and destabilize neighborhoods. With the settlement of the desegregation lawsuit in 1998, suburban districts stopped splitting their windfall with the city. The leaders of the city school district, and their attorney, thought they had an agreement from the state that the city district would get the full level of state aid specified by the state’s school funding formula, but the state reneged on that after two years and convinced judges that the full funding agreement was never intended to last more than a year. The State did agree to give the city school system $180 million to build new schools when, and only if, thousands of students were pushed back into the city by suburban school districts pulling out of the transfer program.
Brown added that an unintended consequence of the St. Louis plan was to separate schools from their communities, which thereby cut links that help encourage good behavior in school and academic success, and cut links that encouraged neighborhood stability. The scattering of students to different schools severed the bonds of shared experiences, teachers, and homework between students and families in the same neighborhood, she said, making mutual support in school work less practical and pushing young people to substitute other kinds of shared experiences for school experiences. The wounds inflicted by this flawed desegregation plan, she said, set the district up for the assault by business raiders. “(The desegregation plaintiffs’) focus should have been on improving schools, not on integration,” she said.
The stability of schools in white suburban districts combined with the growing discrepancy between newer, “better” facilities in the majority white suburban school districts and older, deteriorating facilities in the city further fueled the downward spiral of city neighborhoods and city schools. It gave families with the wherewithal to choose where they lived more reasons to move to suburban neighborhoods.
When the school board voted on May 30 to give Alvarez & Marsal a $5 million contract to run St. Louis public schools for a year, many people in the African-American community were predisposed to view it as another in a long series of white raids on money meant to educate black children and build the black community, albeit a particularly gross and blatant raid.
Roberti quickly added fuel to community-based opposition to his business model by proposing to close 16 elementary schools, 15 of them in majority African-American neighborhoods, including the district’s two alternative schools for students with severe behavior problems. He presented the closing recommendations in simple, rational-seeming terms: St. Louis Public Schools had too many buildings for the number of students it had, which was economically inefficient and drained money away from instruction. They said that enrollment was down 65 percent from the 1967 peak of 115,000 students, but the number of schools in the district was down only 35 percent. That is out of balance, they said, and showed that St. Louis that the St. Louis Public School district needed to be “right-sized.”
Given only one week to respond before the school board was to decide on Roberti’s school closing recommendation, parents, teachers, neighborhood leaders, and some aldermen and some church leaders quickly rallied thousands of people to oppose school closings. The school board then put off a decision for one more week. Although Brown, former school board member William Purdy, and seven other people had filed a lawsuit against the hiring of Roberti in June, people wanting an alternative to the new business model had not coalesced in any group. The lawsuit was a largely symbolic move, like raising a flag to demonstrate that there was an opposition to the corporate-backed business model. People had not even coalesced around one alternative model and two distinct responses to Roberti’s recommendations emerged. One group argued that the method of picking which schools to close was flawed, another argued that so much had changed in the ways schools use space that the basic premise of comparing school occupancy in 2003 to school occupancy in 1967 was simply wrong.
In May 2003, I started a newsletter, with the help of two other unsuccessful candidates, to report on school district policies. The new board’s decision to outsource management of the district to a private business gave me a lot to report on.
On the afternoon of July 1, 2003, state Senator Maida Coleman and five of the city’s state representatives met with the St. Louis school board at Carr Lane Middle School. The senator and state representatives wanted to know how the school board was going to decide which schools to close. Roberti sat by quietly while school board member Amy Hilgemann said that school board members did not even know what criteria they would use to determine which schools to close.
A week later, the school board released a capacity survey by McConnell Jones Lanier & Murphy that would supposedly guide the closure decisions. The survey listed an age, enrollment, “capacity,” and “percent utilization” for every school. “The first targets are school buildings that aren’t full,” said Sharon Murphy, from McConnell Jones Lanier & Murphy. Other criteria were buildings that were more than 45 years old, buildings too small to hold more than 300 students, buildings that are expensive to operate, the need for renovation, scores on the MAP test (the Missouri test for measuring adequate yearly progress and compliance with the student performance targets of the federal No Child Left Behind Act), the availability of seats in nearby schools, the number of planned new housing units within one mile of the school. Magnet schools, she added, were excluded from the closing list because they were part of the settlement of the school desegregation lawsuit.
Roberti promised that no teachers would lose their jobs from a school closing. As the children were shifted to other schools, the teachers would be shifted as well. Instead, savings would come from obvious sources such as not having to heat, light, or clean the building every day. Much of those savings, however, would be offset by having to spend money to bus to school children that had walked to a neighborhood school before that school was closed. Even after renegotiating transportation contracts, it cost the district over $1,000 a year for each child that took a bus to get to school (within four years, that number would grow to over $2,000 a year, driven in part by the rapid inflation of diesel fuel prices). The bigger savings would come by reducing support services, reflecting the view of Roberti and the school board majority that the only important thing was what happened in the classroom. According to MJLM, each school closing would save the school district money, because each closing would eliminate positions for counselors, librarians and media technicians, nurses, parent liaisons, special education and early child development workers, social workers, therapists, and psychologists.
Although few of the champions of keeping schools opened realized at the time the sleight of hand going on with the definition of “capacity” and “percent utilization,” there was a widespread outcry against Murphy’s criteria as shallow, inefficient, and unrealistic. The proposed school closings were immediately seen by African-Americans as an attack on African-American communities. Brown pointed out that 15 of the 16 schools that were to be closed were schools in African-American neighborhoods (14 of them were north of the historic dividing line between black north St. Louis and white south St. Louis); Roberti and the board had purposely excluded community and black political leaders from any of the discussion that led to placing schools on the list for closure; and several of the schools on the school closing list did not conform to the putative criteria for closure.
Brown, Alderwoman Irene J. Smith, and others, argued that the schools appeared to be politically motivated as the schools marked for closure were concentrated in the strongest African-American ward in the city, the one with the highest rate of voter turnout. Students in the effected neighborhoods would be scattered to other schools with different daily start and finish times, complicating the efforts of formal and informal neighborhood support structures to encourage study and help students with homework. Those support networks would themselves be weakened by the harm that school closings did to businesses in the area. Small, locally-owned businesses lost customers when schools closed, whether the customers were students, parents taking children to school or collecting them at the end of the day, or teachers and school staff. The loss of neighborhood businesses would mean a loss of supports for students.
Smith tied the school closings in with the infamous Team Four plan, a document prepared for the city’s 1975 master plan, which advocated withholding public investment from historically African-American neighborhoods in north St. Louis, so that people would eventually chose to leave and the area could be cleared and redeveloped. Since then the city had closed hospitals, police stations, health clinics, and recreation programs. In the two and a half decades that followed the Team Four plan, the public school district was the one municipal institution that continued to invest regularly in those neighborhoods.
Although the Team Four plan was widely known to St. Louis African-Americans, at least to those active in politics and their neighborhoods, whites were more often ignorant of the plan, and tended not to believe that any policy like it could ever exist. Or, if they accepted such a plan existed, whites tended to accept the plan’s rationale: that public investment was most effective if used to support otherwise stable neighborhoods. Since property taxes account for a major chunk of the city’s revenues, however, a plan for public disinvestment in black neighborhoods and investment in white neighborhoods amounted to a transfer of wealth from black homeowners to white homeowners. While all homeowners pay property taxes, property values depend heavily on location. The end of public investment in police and fire stations, streets, and parks in certain neighborhoods necessarily depresses property values in those neighborhoods. The concentration of such public investment in other neighborhoods lifts property values in those neighborhoods.
Schools continued to act as an anchor for those neighborhoods otherwise abandoned by city government, and they would continue to do so until they were closed. Thus, many African-American activists saw the school closings as an attack on the final institution that was supporting certain black neighborhoods, the final chapter in the Team Four plan. Indeed, three and a half years after the school closings, it came out that a major suburban developer named Paul McKee Jr. had, under one name or another bought up 500 properties in the affected neighborhoods and made a deal with the city that he also had the right of first refusal on nearby city-owned properties, all with the aim of building whole subdivisions on the sites of those neighborhoods. He was lobbying, successfully it would turn out, for a state tax credit to subsidize the costs he incurred to assemble properties into large parcels for development. McKee also was a major contributor to the mayor and the mayor’s school board candidates and the founder of the Regional Business Council, a political committee for local “mid-cap” companies, which he defined loosely as those with revenues of less than $1 billion a year but more than $250 million.
“We know that community support for a school and parental involvement strengthen the school and the culture of learning. So why look only at the physical attributes of buildings in isolation from where they are,” Smith asked? Why wasn’t the level of parent involvement in the school taken into consideration, she asked? Scullin Elementary School, for example, which was on the board’s closing list, had the highest rate of parental involvement in the city, at a rate of 89 percent.
Alderwoman Sharon Tyus pointed out that MJLM failed to consider the way children were assigned to schools and bussed within the school system. “Often children live near one school but are bussed to an entirely different neighborhood,” she wrote in memo delivered to the school board on July 14. That was simply a summary of a widespread parent complaint. Rochelle Giles, for example, said she lived one block from the prize-winning Pierre Laclede Elementary School, but when she sought to enroll her daughter for kindergarten, she was assigned to Ford Elementary School several miles away. Four years later, Deanna Anderson, then the director of operations for the school district, admitted such assignments to distant schools was common. She even recommended closing a school because most of the students enrolled there would be transferred to schools closer to their homes. If the consultants truly wanted to plot out the most efficient use of schools and transportation, as they claimed, they would not have done anything so simplistic as dividing school enrollment by school capacity. They first would have sought to assign students who were attending non-magnet schools to their closest schools and then checked the “percent utilization.” Their failure to take the distribution of students into account raised questions about how useful their analysis really was, and how much damage it would do in the long run.
The public also pounced on the age criterion of Murphy’s. St. Louis has a strong architectural preservation movement. Several city neighborhoods had based their redevelopment on the preservation and renovation of historic buildings. Dozens of city schools were registered national historic landmarks, so the Dallas-based consultants’ notion that old is bad just didn’t sit well with many people. Neither was it based in fact. The local group of school architects pointed out that 80-100-year-old schools with their high ceilings and attention to healthy ventilation often were easier to remodel to modern uses than low-ceilinged, poorly ventilated schools built in the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s. In several cases, the original date of construction was irrelevant anyway, because the schools had recently been renovated and air-conditioned.
Simple errors in the building data that MJLM sent the school board further eroded acceptance of their analysis. Kim Jayne, a teacher in the Roosevelt 9th Grade Center at Southwest, for example, pointed to errors in the data for Southwest. The consultants claimed that the student occupancy was only 25 percent of the 1,490 student capacity, or 372 students. “We have three schools in that building,” Jayne said, “and we had 490 kids in just the 9th Grade Center.” The Career Academy had another 430 students, and the Community Access and Job Training School had over 100. In short, the real occupancy was almost three times higher than the number reported in the capacity survey. On the other extreme, MJLM claimed the student occupancy of Stix Early Childhood Center was 143 percent of its 348 student capacity, or 497 students. That would mean the lottery-based enrollment at the school increased 84 percent in one year. Parents of children at Stix, however, scratched their heads and said that was not right. There were the same small classes as the year before and no classes were held in hallways or broom closets. Such errors fueled demands that the Roberti team or the school board at least talk to community leaders and parent-teacher organizations about their schools in order to get their information right.
In the week between July 8 and July 15, African-American leaders tried to affect the school closing plan. The list of schools slated for closings was leaked to the daily newspaper on Friday night and appeared to the public on Sunday, July 13. Tyus and her committeeman and committeewoman then sent their memo to the school board. Tyus noted that the management consultants proposed to close four of the five public school buildings in the Kingshighway and Penrose Park neighborhoods of the 20th Ward. She was prepared to accept that there had to be some school closings, but she asked the board to consider an alternative suggestion. She pointed out that a small, magnet elementary schools stood just three blocks south of Cupples Elementary School, which the consultants proposed to close. Cupples had been renovated and had a new heating, ventilation, and air conditioning system installed just one year earlier. The magnet school was not air-conditioned. MJLM wanted to close Cupples, however, because it was only 50 percent “utilized.” Tyus suggested moving the magnet program to Cupples and housing both the neighborhood school and the magnet program in one building. That, she said, would let the neighborhood children keep walking to school instead of having to take a bus, and it would move the children bussed to the magnet school into an air conditioned facility with room to expand the magnet program. The time that the magnet school students spend on the bus would not change much as Cupples and their old school are only three blocks apart. The school board, however, failed to even acknowledge her suggestion.
In my newsletter, I also highlighted critiques of the basic rationale for closing schools and the capacity numbers the management firm was using. Roberti’s one-to-one comparison of school buildings and student enrollment in 2003 and 1967 was like making a one-to-one comparison of a 2003 Buick or Toyota with 1967 model. Whether talking about a car or a building, enormous changes had been made beneath the outer skin, and those changes made such comparisons false. Roberti’s comparison failed to take into account the number of temporary classrooms that dotted every school yard in 1967, but were removed with declining enrollment before 2003. It ignored differences in class size — St. Louis elementary schools in 1967 had as many as 45 children in a class, a number that would be illegal in 2003 when state law stipulated that the maximum number of children allowed in a classroom with one teacher ranged from 25 in kindergarten to 30 in fifth grade. Roberti’s comparison also ignored program changes in schools since 1967 — from the replacement of half-day kindergarten with all day kindergarten, which meant two classes could not share the same room, to new state requirements for art, music, physical education, and computer education, to the introduction of special education and “resource” (remedial tutoring) requirements — all of which required space in school buildings. Roberti’s false comparison depended for its success on an ignorance of the history of public schooling in St. Louis, an ignorance abetted by the daily newspaper. The young reporter assigned to cover schools was new to St. Louis and showed a pronounced bias in favor of official sources, even to the extent of ignoring reporting that the same newspaper had done 40 years before.
Roberti and MJLM also engaged in some sleight-of-hand with their definition of building capacity. They used the state maximum pupil:teacher ratio to calculate the capacity of each school building, the school board and the state had agreed in settling the desegregation case that classrooms in St. Louis should have the much lower “desired” pupil:teacher ratio stipulated by the state department of education. As part of the settlement in 1998, the State of Missouri and the St. Louis Board of Education agreed to reduce class sizes in St. Louis Public Schools 20 children per teacher in kindergarten, first, and second grade, instead of 25, and 22 children per teacher in fourth and fifth grade, instead of 27. In low performing schools they would reduce the student:teacher ratio even lower. So, for example, a building with 300 students and 16 regular classrooms would be at 94 percent of capacity if the class size was 20 students per teacher, but it would be at only 75 percent of capacity if the class size was 25 students per teacher. Thus, by simply redefining class size, schools that were full under the settlement agreement of the desegregation case suddenly became inefficient and “underutilized” to Roberti, MJLM, and the corporate-backed school board.
Roberti stated again and again that the maximum class size was the proper class size. Framing the issue in business terminology, he said teachers with fewer students than the maximum allowed by law were “underutilized,” and schools with smaller classes than the maximum allowed by law had “underutilized space.” His mission, he said, and the mission of a healthy school board, was to “fully utilize” teachers and schools.
Roberti ridiculed the efforts the previous superintendent and school board had made over three years to comply with the settlement agreement, even though that meant hiring more teachers despite slowly falling enrollments. He called the hiring of additional teachers in those years wasteful and inefficient. Mayor Slay went even further, saying the school board in those years “spent money like drunken sailors.” The local daily newspaper, which once had supported desegregation, adopted Roberti’s language and reported and editorialized about excess capacity, underutilized teachers, and underutilized classrooms. Most African-American politicians, intimidated, perhaps, by their perceptions of the mayor’s power and the power of the corporations behind him, ducked their heads and kept quiet. The plaintiffs in the 30-year-old desegregation case were mostly dead or gone. Only the lawyers stayed on and they just shrugged their shoulders and said the courts didn’t favor desegregation anymore. They stayed quiet and out of the way, too. Mainstream journalists also kept quiet on why anyone opposed Roberti’s recommendations. Only St. Louis Schools Watch and Brown on her radio show explained alternatives to Roberti’s point of view.
When July 15 arrived, nearly 1,000 people packed the auditorium at Harris-Stowe State College for the vote, filling the seats and standing in the aisles. The stage was set for what would become the launch of a protracted, multi-year battle for the future of St. Louis Public Schools. Some people came with a desperate hope of working a last minute change in the minds of board members. Some came to vent their frustration. Some came to repudiate feelings of powerlessness. They all came expecting a show. They got two.
The meeting on July 15, 2003 was a “special” school board meeting, a show meeting for the St. Louis Board of Education. Portions of the meeting would be on every television newscast across the metropolitan area that night, and the board intended to showcase its professionalism, its control, and its concern for public input, even going the extra step of scheduling a public comment period when special board meetings normally do not provide that opportunity. The stage was set with flowers and bunting. Microphones stood apart from the tables at which board members sat, so that each member wishing to speak would have to stand up to be recognized. A professional parliamentarian was brought in from Jefferson City to advise President Darnetta Clinkscale, and to instruct the audience to speak politely and dispassionately.
The meeting also was an opportunity for citizens opposed to the school board’s plans to put on their own show, however. They intended to question the assumptions implicit in the recommendations to close schools. They intended to send the message that they were not leaving, and that this board was so unpopular it could not control its own meetings.
As expected, the school board accepted the school closing recommendations of the Alvarez & Marsal management team en bloc. The vote was 5-2. The board accepted the recommendations without a single question, without any discussion of the number of schools to be closed or the merits of closing any particular school, and certainly without any board member asking the consultants if any of the alternatives suggested by community and political leaders was feasible.
Before the vote, the board tried to put on its show, but ran into problems with the script. Hecklers early on targeted both Clinkscale and the hired parliamentarian. When Sharon Murphy began her presentation on the recommendations for closing schools the roar of the heckling became so loud everywhere in the auditorium that Clinkscale canceled the presentation. The audience cheered when Murphy was sent packing.
Aldermen Jeffrey Boyd, Tyus, and Tom Bauer picked apart Murphy’s recommendations, from the data she used to justify them to the savings she said the board would realize. The “new construction” data, for example, ignored the number of permits that were issued for renovations, which are much more common in an old, built-up city than new construction. The data also was just plain wrong. Bauer pointed out that permits had been issued for 100 new houses in the neighborhood around Roe Elementary School, the only school slated for closing in a majority white neighborhood; and work had already begun on a 500-unit family apartment complex adjacent to Carver School. Neither number, however, made it into Murphy’s data set.
In the end, both the board and their opponents appeared to think they had put on successful shows. Members of the new board majority appeared to feel that they had demonstrated to their chosen audience a willingness to listen, even when the public was rude and abusive. Board opponents seemed to think they had sent a message that this board was so unpopular it could not even run its own meetings, let alone improve the schools. Their showing invigorated the opposition to the next stage of Roberti’s business model.
And in the weeks and months that followed, one school emerged as the symbol of everything that was wrong with the school board’s hasty decision to close 16 schools: Waring Elementary School.
When McConnell Jones Lanier & Murphy released their capacity report on St. Louis Public Schools in July 8, 2003, one school fairly jumped off the list: Waring School. It was not that there was anything unusual about the school or its enrollment, rather it was the note typed next to the school name, “closure candidate.” Waring was the only school labeled a “closure candidate” in that report, and six months later it was demolished to make way for a new basketball arena — the Chaifetz Arena — for St. Louis University.
Waring parents were shocked when they saw the tag “closure candidate” attached to their school. Several of them contacted school board members to voice their concerns. Among them were Kathy Styer, Debbie Pfeiffer, and Carlos Pardo-Martinez. They were told that the tag “closure candidate” was a typographical error. Still, they were suspicious. Even though Waring did not seem a good fit with the school closing criteria, it already was rumored that St. Louis University wanted the site.
Waring was one of the desegregation magnet schools, offering a program mandated by the desegregation order. It should be immune from closing according to the criteria the management consultants said they were using to determine which schools to close.
Waring also was one of the better performing elementary school in the district, as measured by test scores. Test scores had increased steadily, and on the 2003 MAP test, Waring was one of the top five performing schools in the district. Surely, a district struggling to raise student test scores would want to preserve and expand the successful program at Waring, not shut it down, right?
Those were the gist of the comments that Waring parents made to school board members and MJLM. They also pointed out that Waring had a very active parent organization, and a better parent participation rate than most of the elementary schools in the district. Since all experts agreed on the importance of parent involvement to student learning, they argued that parent involvement should be one of the criteria, because the board should be seeking to promote schools which demonstrated a culture of parent involvement.
What about the other seven criteria?
The school was not scheduled for any major renovations, in fact, parents said it had just gotten some major capital improvements, including a new gym paid for by the state under the desegregation order, so it did not appear to meet the last two criteria on the list.
The management consultants changed the rated capacity of the school from 350 students, the number arrived at by the school district’s planning department, to 298, which was just below the arbitrary cut-off point of 300, but there were 21 schools even smaller, so that one didn’t seem to be enough to justify closing the school over.
Three of the remaining criteria were irrelevant to magnet schools. Space available in nearby school buildings? Waring was a magnet school. The kids arrived by bus. They could be bused anywhere there was space, nearby or not. Minimal planned housing starts in the vicinity over the next two years? Again, as a magnet school, the number of new families in the vicinity was irrelevant, because it could draw from all across the city. As it turns out, however, there were hundreds of housing starts planned in the Grand Center area next to Waring School, including a 500-unit apartment complex less than one mile from the school. A high percentage of unused classroom space? In a neighborhood school, that may be a measure of the number of children available for that school to serve, but Waring was a magnet school in a system where magnets slots are filled by lottery and where a common complaint heard from both white and black parents is that they can not get their kids into magnet schools. If Waring had a lot of empty seats, and parents disputed the numbers used by MJLM, than it was due simply to the administration of the school district not promoting the school. Suppose the magnet school brochure trumpeted the school’s high academic performance? And if that didn’t fill it, how about adding a couple of paragraphs to the letter that went out to those parents whose children did not get into the schools they wanted telling them that they could reapply for Waring, where there were plenty of spaces? As Susan Turk wrote in a July 14, 2003 note to school board members: “Magnets with openings have never been publicized… Better communication with the community would fill magnet schools that have vacancies.”
That left only one relevant criterion that the school did meet: built in 1940, Waring School was more than 45 years old. (How important was the age? When the school board ratified the closing of Waring it voted to move the magnet program there to a school that was 92 years old.)
On July 15, however, the school board voted to close Waring School anyway. Nine weeks later, the board contracted with Hilliker Corp. to find buyers for 41 previously closed schools, not including the 16 schools closed in July. The first building sold, however, was Waring School. Buried deep in the Hilliker contract, in Attachment C, was a statement that as St. Louis University had already said it wanted to buy the building, Hilliker would not get its full commission on that sale.
School board member Bill Haas said that Roberti told him that St. Louis University President Lawrence Biondi, a Jesuit priest, had met with Roberti in June and asked if the university could buy Waring School. Roberti, according to Haas, said he told Biondi that he did not yet know which schools would be closed. Biondi had an “in” on the school board, however. Vincent Schoemehl, the main power on the board, essentially worked for Biondi. Schoemehl was president of Grand Center Inc., a company formed to redevelop an area that was adjacent to and included part of St. Louis University. Biondi and several university executives and major donors sat on the Grand Center Inc. board of directors. They had hired Schoemehl and had the power to fire him. Not it ever got that ugly — they had hired him because they shared the same vision and goals, and one of those shared goals was the construction of a new basketball arena in the Grand Center area. (Other property owners in the redevelopment area later filed a lawsuit in federal court charging that Schoemehl and Grand Center Inc illegally used city ordinances and tax dollars to favor St. Louis University projects over those of other property owners.
In the meantime, Biondi announced that the university was giving up on its efforts to buy private land on which to build the hoped for new basketball arena. The best prices it could get from owners added up to $28.5 million, which Biondi said was too much to spend.
In November 2003, the school board agreed to sell Waring School and its land to St. Louis University for $1.25 million, saving the university $27 million on land acquisition costs. It was a good site, too, adjacent to the region’s “Main Street,” the major highway that ran through St. Louis and its most affluent suburbs, at the intersection with a major cross street and already served by highway exit and entrance ramps.
Was it a fair price? It is hard to tell. Neither the school board nor the management consultants ever bothered to get the site or school appraised. Former superintendent Cleveland Hammonds expressed surprise at the low price the school district accepted for the site. “I think that is a very valuable site, because it is right on the highway,” he said.
Prior to his retirement, Hammonds’ underlings had sounded out St. Louis University about a land swap. Bill Purdy, whose second term on the school board expired in April 2003, said the school district had benefited once before when it has swapped land with Washington University. In the mid-’90s, St. Louis Public Schools negotiated a favorable land swap with Washington University Medical Center. The medical school wanted to expand and wanted to acquire the neighboring Michael and Stix Elementary School at Euclid and Forest Park Parkway from St. Louis Public Schools and put a parking garage in its place. Instead of selling the university the school, said Purdy, the school district negotiated a swap that got the district a “free, state-of-the-art” replacement school, built to its specifications, in exchange. The superintendent and school board had approached negotiations with Washington University from the point of view of what the community needed. They recognized that the market price is not how low someone will bid when there are no competitors, but how much they are willing to pay.
St. Louis University spokesman Jeff Fowler acknowledged that school district officials had contacted the university about trading Waring School for land the university owned in Grand Center, the city’s performing arts district. At the time, the school district was looking to move its visual and performing arts high school to a new facility in Grand Center, a move that Roberti squashed after he took the helm of the school district. Glynn Young, a school district spokesman under Roberti, pointed to the nascent land swap discussions in an effort to end widespread public criticism of the sale of Waring School to St. Louis University. Like many parents whose children attended Waring, Kathy Styer was not impressed by Glynn’s argument. For the six years in which she had children at Waring, she heard rumors that St. Louis University coveted the school site. The school district had even reconfigured the school’s playground and parking lot to accommodate an expansion of the university’s athletic facility, she said. “How long does it take to see the writing on the wall?” she added. Nonetheless, she thought the $1.2 million sale price was way too low. “It sounds like a sweetheart deal to me,” she said. Outrage over the closing of Waring School and its sale to St. Louis University would discredit Roberti’s business model and inflame opposition to his administration for months to come.
Roberti set the stage for his school closing recommendations by putting a new spin on the school district’s financial crisis. For three decades, questions about how to improve education for minority children had dominated public discussion about St. Louis public schools. Roberti sought to change that debate. He needed to elevate concerns about cost over concerns about quality. With the help of the mayor and the daily newspaper, he boldly asserted that all of the district’s financial problems were due to overspending, and one sign of overspending was the number of school buildings.
The financial crisis was real, but it affected schools districts throughout the state, not just St. Louis, the result of a feud between the between the governor and the state legislature. Gov. Bob Holden, a Democrat, had withheld money that state lawmakers had appropriated for education and tried to blame the Republicans for the unexpected hardship it caused school districts. He was required by law to withhold money for education, he claimed, because the Republicans had sent him an unbalanced budget and overrode his veto. Superintendent Hammonds said the state took a total of $34.8 million away from St. Louis Public Schools in three bites, one each in November 2002, February 2003, and June 2003. He also claimed that charter schools, which the state started in the city in 1999, siphoned off $19.6 million more than they reduced the district’s costs. As a percentage of its budget, the deficit projected for St. Louis Public Schools in fiscal year 2004 was roughly the same size as deficits predicted for the suburban Hillsboro school district and other districts across the state.
The state would again duck its funding responsibilities in fiscal year 2004. In May 2003, the legislature passed a budget that shortchanged the 2003-04 school funding formula by $356 million, according to the state board of education. And in October 2003, the state board of education said the legislature would have to increase the state’s $4.5 billion primary education budget by $800 million the following year just to meet basic needs.
“This budget request clearly shows that there is a fast-growing gap between ‘where we were’ and where we ought to be in funding our public schools, at a time when schools are facing tougher demands than ever,” said Commissioner of Education D. Kent King. Eventually, in 2005, the legislature would adopt a new, cheaper formula for school funding needs, one that saved over $800 million, to avoid fully funding primary education. By then, however, Holden was out of job. His gambit had failed. He was widely blamed for withholding money from education and could not even get renominated by his own party. Meanwhile, the new administration of Republican Matt Blunt and the legislature continued to scale back state funding for education. In fiscal year 2006-2007, the legislature appropriated $900 million less for K-12 education than it had spent in fiscal year 1999-2000.
Roberti’s comments would have repercussions far beyond the closing of schools in St. Louis in 2003. In 2002, St. Louis and a majority of the 564 school districts in Missouri sued the state over the adequacy of education funding, which suit would take years to come to trial. A right-wing multimillionaire opposed to income taxes and public schools would intervene in the case on the side of the state and fund expert testimony that funding was adequate. Among the evidence his experts would cite would be reports by William Roberti, the acting superintendent of St. Louis Public Schools, that the schools suffered from overspending not underfunding. In fiscal year 2003, St. Louis Public Schools balanced its budget by dipping into its reserve fund, but the next year was going to be tougher. Hammonds, the outgoing superintendent, estimated that if nothing was done to raise revenues or cut expenses the next year, the district would finish fiscal year 2004 with a $63 million deficit. Other Missouri school districts in similar circumstances were going to their voters with tax issues to make up for cuts in state funding.
Roberti rejected the idea that St. Louis Public Schools needed to raise or receive more money. St. Louis, he said, spent too much to educate children. His goal, he said at the June 2003 school board meeting, was to “right size the organization” so it “will not get in this position [of fiscal crisis] again.” Although groups such as the Corporation for Economic Development cite studies from the U.S. Department of Education to back claims that schools have to spend much more to educate disadvantaged children to the same educational standard as their peers, Roberti didn’t buy that argument. In simple, businesslike language, he said that the average expenditure per child in St. Louis Public Schools was higher than it was in comparison districts, so, in order to be financially efficient, St. Louis had to get its per-unit cost down. His comparison, however, was wrong.
Roberti said that St. Louis Public Schools were the most expensive in the nation, spending “double the amount per pupil as other comparable school districts.” The news media loved those statements and never tried to confirm them, even though Roberti’s own suspect data did not support them. When pressed for specific dollar figures, Roberti said St. Louis Public Schools spent $11,711 per student while comparable districts spent $7,000.
In truth, St. Louis was not even the most expensive school district in its metro area, let alone the country. According to the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, several nearby St. Louis County school districts — including Brentwood, Clayton, and Ladue — spent more per student than Roberti claimed that St. Louis did. That information was easily accessibly on the education department’s public Web page, but mainstream journalists seemed averse to checking it. Jake Wagman, the Post-Dispatch education reporter, even said that as superintendent, Roberti “of course knew what he was talking about.”
Enos Moss, who Roberti made the treasurer of St. Louis Public Schools, later said that Roberti was not making valid comparisons, because he was including in the spending in St. Louis expenses that not all school districts have or count. The relevant comparison, he said, is how much the district spends to provide instruction. Roberti, however, and others who said St. Louis spent nearly $12,000 per child on education included the cost of the federally mandated school lunch program for impoverished children. Eighty-five percent of students in St. Louis public schools qualified for free or reduced price school lunches, while some wealthy suburban school districts have very few students getting subsidized lunches. Roberti included the cost of bussing for desegregation in calculating the per child cost of education in city schools, even though that cost is not included in the comparison costs of suburban school districts, because the cost of bussing for desegregation in suburban schools were borne by a separate entity, the Voluntary Interdistrict Coordinating Council. Roberti also included the cost of special education, which is not included in the budget and per pupil costs of the suburban school districts, because there the funding for special education comes through a different entity, the Special School District.
Roberti also included pass-through spending in his per-pupil calculation. That is, he included the state allocations for services for parochial and private school children that are funneled through the public school district in the calculation to determine the costs of educating children in St. Louis public schools, even though such money is not spent on students in public schools; it is spent on students who are “off the books” in private schools. Roberti also included debt payments on bond-financed capital projects. St. Louis schools were in the middle of a program to air condition its stable of 80-100 year old schools after voters had approved borrowing $381 million to pay for it. Such capital spending is going to vary widely during the life of a building and it varies widely in any given year from school district to school district. Moss said such capital spending has to be excluded from per student costs to get any reasonable comparison of how much districts spend year-to-year on educating students.
Moss said that excluding the same costs from city school district’s budget as were excluded from suburban school districts’ budgets, except special education, reduced the per pupil cost of providing education to students in St. Louis Public Schools to $7,549, less than the per pupil cost of most suburban school districts in metro St. Louis and nowhere near the most expensive in the country. If the cost of special education were excluded, as it was in suburban St. Louis County, the average cost per pupil dropped by more than $1,000 to $6,539.
Moss cautioned another reason for taking care national comparisons of per-pupil education costs. Many school districts calculate their average expenditure per pupil based on their enrollments. In Missouri, however, districts have to calculate that expenditure based on the average daily attendance, which is a smaller number. A child who misses 20 days of school during the year still needs a seat in the classroom, still gets homework, and still gets graded by the teacher, still counts against the maximum number of students allowed in a class, but under Missouri’s regulations such a child does not count as a full child for the purpose of computing the average expenditure per pupil. With an average daily attendance that has fluctuated for years between 85 and 90 percent, the average daily attendance method to calculate the average expenditure per pupil artificially inflates the spending by St. Louis Public Schools by 10 to 15 percent when compared to districts that use the enrollment method to calculate their average expenditure.
Mathematical calculations and the reasoning behind them may be too arcane or boring to feature in a mainstream news account, but it still is important for journalists to explore so that they can better understand the issues schools face and explain them to readers. To not do that is to ignore part of the story and willfully mislead readers. Yet, that is exactly what too many reporters decide to do. For example Steve Giegerich, who came to the position of Post-Dispatch education reporter after Jake Wagman got moved to the city hall beat, would dismiss pleas that he look at actual budget and performance data with protestations that he was not any good at math or it was “too boring.”
One reason that ferreting out actual spending on education is important is that there is research that shows that it does cost more to educate children from disadvantaged backgrounds than it costs to educate children from advantaged backgrounds to the same academic level. Researchers at the U.S. Department of Education have estimated that schools have to spend 40 percent more on educational programs for disadvantaged students to have them perform academically at the same level as their peers from advantaged backgrounds, mainly because students from advantaged backgrounds enter school with an academic head start over their disadvantaged peers.
Roberti’s claim that the city of St. Louis spent too much money on education was wrong, but it motivated cuts in education spending that further damaged the children of St. Louis and compounded the disadvantages they faced when compared to their peers in wealthier suburbs. Even worse, Roberti diverted attention away from questions that might have led to positive reform of St. Louis Public Schools. The right questions included asking how much of the non-educational spending did the school board have power to change? Did it have the discretionary authority to redirect enough spending to significantly increase spending on instruction? If not, where could it find more funding for education?
School board member Vince Schoemehl was perhaps even more emphatic than Roberti that St. Louis schools spent too much money, and suggested that the long-term problem for the school district was too much money. “It is amazing how many sources of funding there are for urban schools,” he said. “We may eventually have to turn down funding. . .” Such claims that schools get too much money have been tremendously damaging to legitimate efforts to stabilize, repair, and reform St. Louis Public Schools. Since Roberti issued his wrong numbers, whenever there has talk about raising money for any school related program, there would be objectors repeating the false claim that St. Louis Public Schools spent more per child than any other school district. The uncritical attention the Post-Dispatch and other news outlet gave the “too-much-money” claims shifted the public debate from what does it take to educate disadvantage children to how can we cut costs.
Shifting the attention of the public and policymakers from quality education to a Wal-Mart-like “always the low price” goal would have unfortunate consequences for St. Louis children. An enormous body of education research documents that on average, children from disadvantaged backgrounds not only start school well behind their counterparts from middle income or wealthy families, but they start school with attention and memory deficits — the equivalent of brain damage — that makes it more difficult for them to learn as well as their peers who come from more advantaged backgrounds. Any strategy that aims to help children from disadvantaged backgrounds make-up the difference to perform academically as well as their advantaged peers necessarily costs money and by definition that is spending that is not necessary for children coming from environments that prepare them well to learn. The problem for educators is figuring out what extra things they can do for low-income children to make up for advantages other children enjoy and how to measure its effectiveness. However, the question of how to measure the effectiveness of extra efforts is a different question from how to cut costs so that there is no extra spending at all. Instead of figuring out what extra programs worked to helped disadvantaged inner city children catch up and keep pace with more advantaged children in wealthier suburbs, Roberti’s insistence on larger classes and cutting costs actually meant that St. Louis Public Schools would do less for children than did suburban districts.
Cutting spending was not the only way out of the district’s financial crisis. Roberti, the mayor, and the corporate-backed all could have backed a tax increase. The last time citizens had voted to raise property taxes for schools had been 15 years before in 1998. Under Missouri law, as the value of total property rose in the city, whether because of the renovation of an old house or a large expansion of beer brewing and bottling facilities at Anheuser-Busch, the school board had to cut the tax rate in order to keep its local tax revenues stable (or stagnant). By 2003, the property tax rate for schools was more than 50 cents below the rate the voters had approved in 1998.
When Senator Coleman and five of the city’s state representatives met with the St. Louis school board on July 1, 2003, to discuss the district’s financial outlook, the legislators suggested the school board go to the voters for a tax increase, like most other districts in the state were doing. That suggestion, however, fell on deaf ears. The bitterness and divisions in the community that Roberti would produce with his radical efforts to remake the school district along business lines would make it unthinkable for anyone to ask the voters for more taxes for schools for years to come.
The nearly spontaneous outpouring of opposition to the new board’s corporate philosophy seen on May 30, 2003 kicked off an at first uncoordinated, but increasingly organized, opposition movement to forces attempting to impose a corporate style business model on public education in St. Louis.
The impromptu demonstration prompted six African American political leaders — state Senator Maida Coleman and state Representatives Yaphett El-Amin, Amber Boykins, Robin Wright-Jones, Rodney Hubbard, and Connie Johnson — to send Commissioner Kent King of the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education a letter six days later requesting that he deny the waiver of the certification that Roberti needed to act as the interim superintendent of the St. Louis Public Schools. One day after that Aldermen Freeman Bosley, Sr., Irene Smith, and Jeffrey Boyd introduced a bill in the St. Louis Board of Aldermen to hold public hearings on the school board’s decision to hire Alvarez & Marsal.
An ad-hoc citizens’ group announced plans for a protest at City Hall on June 11. Rev. Walter Johnson, whose daughter attended the Gateway Math, Science, and Technology Elementary School, said the press conference and protest would be held at City Hall, because it was Mayor Slay and his corporate backers who put the new four-member majority on the seven-member school board, and they were still calling the shots. “When the big money people get interested in the public school budget, instead of education, there is a problem there,” he said.
Meanwhile, in a move largely unrelated to the school board’s decision to outsource management of the school district, teachers were gearing up for a protest at the school board’s June 10, 2003 meeting. Teachers and clerical employees were going to protest the school board’s failure to negotiate with their union, American Federation of Teachers (AFT) Local 420, whose agreement with the board would expire at the end of the month.
Community leaders quickly realized that an alliance with teachers would make their opposition to the corporate model of schooling even stronger and urged people to join the union demonstration on June 10. As the clock ticked toward the start of the school board meeting, protesters packed the 600-seat auditorium where the board of education would meet. The standing room only crowd, about half of it composed of teachers, compelled the board to extend the public comment period and listen to an hour of criticism of what the board had and had not done.
The next day was when Lizz Brown announced to a crowd of protesters at City Hall the filing of Brown v. the Board of Education, a lawsuit that sought to void the board’s hiring of Alvarez & Marsal. Brown, who thought up the lawsuit, was the lead plaintiff among eight. Former school board president Bill Purdy, one of the other eight plaintiffs, paid most of the costs of that lawsuit. That same day, school board member Rochelle Moore and 14 other citizens petitioned the Circuit Court to remove the five board members who voted to hire Alvarez & Marsal. The petition claimed the five acted illegally in hiring the bankruptcy firm, violating both state law and board policy. The most important of those activities was Brown v. the Board of Education. Without astute leadership, this flash of opposition to the corporate “reform” plan could disappear as quickly as it had flamed up; and the politicians who had sent their letter and filed their resolution would have moved on to another issue. Brown, however, conceived of her lawsuit as part of a larger strategy to unite citizens in activities against the corporate takeover of St. Louis schools. That strategic thinking separated her lawsuit from Moore’s petition.
In terms of school politics, Brown was a brash outsider and Black Power advocate with a radio program that allowed her the means to get out her message — Schoemehl derided her as the poor man’s Rush Limbaugh. As an outsider, however, she had few connections with educators. Purdy was the ultimate insider. A lifelong employee of St. Louis Public Schools, he had risen from teacher to assistant principal to principal before retiring and winning a seat on the board of education. He knew hundreds of educators in town — active and retired teachers and educators — and the city was filled with his former students. He was widely respected by the black political establishment for his long record of support for equal rights and desegregation. In this baseball-crazy city he also was welcomed everywhere as a former catcher for the defunct St. Louis Browns professional baseball team.
Brown’s lawsuit brought her into contact with Alderwoman Irene Smith and her established political network. They joined forces and assembled a small group of activists — including George Cotton, who had just left the school district to lead a nonprofit working on AIDs in the black community; Phil Berry, who worked in community relations for St. Louis University; Greg Tumlin, a school district security guard; and Dorris McGahee, presidents of The Parent Assembly of St. Louis Public Schools — who began the work to unite opponents of the corporate reform plan into one coalition.
Mayor Slay, rather than school board members, was the point man defending the business model for St. Louis schools and the outsourcing of administration to a business management firm. He dismissed the barrage of lawsuits and press conferences as the expected last gasps of an old regime opposed to change, but nonetheless called his own meeting to rally support for the corporate agenda for public schools. Sources close to the new board said that the members of the mayor’s slate had been stunned by the outcry against them, and they felt much of it was unjustified. The meeting, which was to be at Harris-Stowe State College on Saturday, June 21, was to be full of symbolism. Harris and Stowe colleges had been the white and black teachers’ colleges for St. Louis Public Schools before they were merged in the 1950s. Although control of the merged college later passed from St. Louis Public Schools to the State of Missouri, it still mainly produced teachers for St. Louis area schools. Mayor Slay would be there to show his support for Roberti and the school board. Roberti and board president Clinkscale were to make reports to a supportive public. Ron Berry, state supervisor from the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education was to report on the accreditation process, and his presence at the mayor’s rally would symbolize the state government’s support for the corporate plan for schools.
That meeting gave those opposed to the emerging business model for schools a chance to see each other in action. St. Louis Schools Watch, the newsletter I edited, found out about the meeting and send out on e-mail blast on it to subscribers on June 16, 2003. About 60 people showed up for the meeting, half filling the lecture hall where it was to be held. Opponents of the school board’s decision to outsource management of the district to a private firm outnumbered supporters of the board by at least two to one, and they did not keep their disapproval to themselves. The fact that Roberti and Clinkscale had rejected a request by Alderman Freeman Bosley to explain their decisions to the St. Louis Board of Aldermen in a public meeting had stoked their anger. Clinkscale had asserted separation of powers to justify refusing to meet with aldermen, yet here she was with her superintendent ready to report to the mayor. For his part, Roberti did not take kindly to criticism. He twice lost his temper and sternly wagged his finger towards the crowd like a frustrated father scolding disobedient children.
Bill Monroe, founder of the Thurgood Marshall Charter School and a former cop, and Alderwoman Irene Smith, both took school board vice president Ron Jackson to task for the board’s failure to openly discuss major decisions or to seek to involve the public school community in its deliberations. ‘Why not involve the community instead of closing the door to your meetings? …You are not ‘father knows best,”‘ Smith said. Jackson answered that the community would be engaged in the process if people got past their anger and showed more “positivism” towards the board.
It was a week-and-a-half later word first leaked out that Roberti and the school board were planning to close schools, which fueled a widespread sense of exclusion from the governing process and set the stage for the an organizing meeting for a popular opposition to the mayor’s corporate agenda.
In the meantime, the legal apparatus of the State was lining up behind Roberti and the corporate agenda. Circuit Court Judge Stephen Ohmer declined to issue a temporary restraining order to halt the installation of Roberti as acting superintendent until Missouri Commissioner of Education King issued a waiver from the state requirement that only someone who had been trained and certified to be a school superintendent could hold a superintendent’s post. And Attorney General Jay Nixon agreed to let the school district borrow from a special capital fund to pay operating expenses. The capital fund, which was established as part of the settlement of the desegregation lawsuit, was supposed to be used only to build new schools to handle increased enrollment if the county districts stopped accepting African-American students from the city. That borrowing authority would enable the sleight of hand that would let Roberti claim to have reduced the deficit without a corresponding cut in spending, which ultimately would give the state board of education the pretense for taking over St. Louis Public Schools.
The attorney general’s decision set off one of those sideshows that attracts a lot of attention, but is ultimately irrelevant, except that it illustrated how degraded the original desegregation lawsuit had become. Lawyers for the original plaintiffs in the 30-year-old desegregation lawsuit surfaced to file a motion with the federal judge arguing that borrowing from the capital fund to pay operating expenses violated the settlement agreement. School district representatives then went on a media offensive saying that if the district could not borrow that money, there would be no school. After the plaintiffs’ lawyers agreed to let the district borrow the money, they largely disappeared from view. They did not challenge any of the major breaches in the desegregation agreement: larger class sizes, cutbacks in magnet programs, cuts in early childhood education, etc. They simply announced that they should have been consulted and then meekly disappeared again. The agreement, which was reached on Aug. 20, limited the amount the school board could borrow from the capital account to $49.5 million, and set a strict repayment schedule that was to begin in fiscal year 2005. The school board agreed to another face-saving measure for the lawyers: it agreed to a public meeting once a year to provide information to plaintiffs and the public.
“We were concerned for the transfer of capital funds without repayment,” plaintiffs’ attorney William Taylor said, explaining that the school board had claimed there were no restraints on how they used the money. In the face of that claim, he said, setting a limit on how much the school board could borrow from the capital fund and setting repayment schedule were definite gains.
Meanwhile, the emerging democratic coalition for public schools was focusing not in the courts, but in the streets. In the wake of the news that the school board was going to decide to close several public schools, Brown, Smith, and a few other community leaders called a mass meeting at the Gateway Classic Foundation building, which Brown promoted on her radio show. Hundreds of people — parents, community activists, block leaders, ward activists, school district employees, and retirees — showed up wanting to know what they could do. One of the first tactics of the new organization was to target the silence of established community institutions — unions, churches, and political organizations — who tacitly if tepidly supported the corporate model for schools while washing their hands with the phrase, “Well, we’ve got to do something.” One of the tasks in the meeting was to find out what organizations people belonged to encourage them work within those organizations to swing them around to oppose the destruction of public schools.
There was as yet no formal leadership, nor a bank account. The people who called the meeting were the leadership. They had divided the group into committees — a research committee, a letter writing committee, a canvassing committee, and a direct action committee, for example — and each committee operated as a semi-autonomous group. When they needed something, such as paper for leaflets, envelopes, or stamps, the leaders put out a call for donations and at the next meeting people arrived with reams of paper, boxes of envelopes, rolls of stamps, or whatever was needed for the planned activity. The Schools Watch, although independent, quickly became a major source of news and analysis about the school board’s activities, and a vehicle for getting out news about opposition activities. This amorphous structure served the group well in the initial heat of opposition to Roberti’s cuts and privatization — it gave the proponents of public education flexibility in responding to attacks on the schools, and the ability to respond in a variety of ways — but proved insufficient for responding to setbacks and the need to plan for a long campaign.
Come July 15, 2003, the day when the school board would vote on closing schools, and the democratic opposition mobilized over 600 people to pack the meeting room. They filled out every seat and spilled out into the hall before the police came and herded out everyone who did not have a seat. Although the school board went ahead and voted to close schools, the mass turnout invigorated the democratic opposition. People emerged from the meeting with a sense of power from being part of a large group that successfully disrupted the planned agenda. They emerged with the sense that, if they could just get more people, they would be powerful enough to get what they wanted. The meeting also further stripped away the cloak of legitimacy from the school board majority. Despite impassioned arguments from parents and elected municipal officials, despite the presentation of data highlighting errors in the school district’s analysis, the school board members at the meeting voted without a single question or comment to accept Roberti’s recommendations for school closings. That seemed to prove to the crowd that this school board made decisions in private and used public meetings simply as a screen to ratify those predetermined decisions. People left the meeting confident that after being so obviously wronged someone would do something. Meanwhile, the democratic opposition broadened its criticism of the school board. They labeled the new school board majority, and Roberti and Alvarez & Marsal, as “Slay’s Raiders.” They said that the Raiders’ reform model was nothing more than a thin veil to justify corporate raids on public school funds. Such raids, they said, were fundamentally attacks on the black community — attacks on one of the few institutions that provided educational opportunities to African-American children, that provided good job opportunities to African-American adults, and that helped stabilize African-American neighborhoods.
Although some individual teachers and paraprofessionals had joined the meetings of the democratic opposition, AFT Local 420 pursued its own strategy for negotiations and still held itself aloof from the broader struggle for education rights. The local leaders that had most prominently backed the mayor’s proxy candidates for the school board, including the union president, were thrown out of office by the membership in elections in June. The new president, Mary Armstrong, adopted a more militant posture than that taken by her predecessor. Her allies on the union’s executive board claimed to have a strategy of pickets and rallies ready to mobilize the members to pressure the school board to negotiate, but, they said they were hamstrung by the sorry state of the union’s records.
Two weeks after closing 16 of the school district’s 112 schools, Roberti announced his intention of laying off 1,463 of the district’s 6,260 employees. His plan called for eliminating 90 administrators, 99 social workers, therapists, librarians, and counselors from “support services,” 118 clerical positions (one-third of the clerical positions in the district), 164 teacher’s aides, all the custodians, all the mechanics and tradespeople, and all lunchroom workers. The school board majority and their allies blamed the projected budget deficit for the layoffs.
Before retiring, former superintendent Cleveland Hammonds had told the board that without any changes in spending or income, the $400 million general operating budget for St. Louis Public Schools in 2004 would run $63 million in the red, which Sajan George later changed to $79 million, after disallowing the use of desegregation capital funds to help pay for the cost of a new technical school for city and county students. Although George downplayed the difference between his estimate of the deficit and that of the Hammonds administration — he called the two estimates “essentially the same” — his bosses did not.
Roberti, new board members Schoemehl, Jackson, Archibald and Clinkscale, Mayor Slay, and the Post-Dispatch, turned the budget deficit into an ideological issue. They said the difference between Hammond’s estimate and George’s estimate showed that career employees of public school systems did not know how to manage or even count money. Ignoring the withholding of state funding, Slay lashed out at the old board was “spending money like drunken sailors.” Roberti said the district’s financial systems were so poor that administrators and board members had no concept of the district’s financial health or illness. News media across the country picked up and ran with the message of a supposedly incompetent public school administration. John Merrow, for example, featured Roberti’s changes in St. Louis with a clip of Roberti saying: “I think there’s a strong sentiment and feeling out there across this country that there is not the business, financial and operating talent out there to run these very complicated, complex entities.” George Clowes, writing in School Reform News, reported that in St. Louis, there was a “lack of knowledge about what was happening financially in the district, which had a budget of $450 million.” Clowes based his reporting on a presentation that Roberti made to the fourteenth annual EDVentures Conference of the Education Industry Association, a group of “education entrepreneurs,” which was held at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, in August 2004. Roberti told the gathering that the St. Louis school board, “brought in a corporate turnaround firm to help save a system that was so dysfunctional that it was on the brink of bankruptcy.”
That message of incompetence was an important one for the corporate-backed board to get across, because the changes they were trying to make in the school system were much more extensive than what was needed to balance the budget. Hammonds had estimated that he could cut spending by $55 million by closing five schools and laying off 416 employees. Roberti’s proposed cuts were three times more severe: closing 16 schools and laying off 1,463 employees. Twenty-five percent of the jobs he wanted to eliminate were funded by grants and restricted funds that were independent of the general operating budget and thus would have no effect on the projected deficit. The majority of lay-offs would be due to outsourcing decisions that were at best budget neutral. Thus, it was necessary to discredit Hammonds’ numbers in order to corral support for Roberti’s more draconian recommendations and the agenda of privatization.
Through the uncritical agency of the Post-Dispatch, the Alvarez & Marsal team tried to make the case that the school district’s financial troubles resulted from waste. First, they claimed that the deficit would actually approach $90 million (although, when pressed, they would insist that newspapers misinterpreted what they meant by a montly cash deficit and they never said the budget deficit would be that great ), which led to the mayor’s criticism that the previous school board had “spent money like drunken sailors.” Then the Wagman and the Post-Dispatch hyped stories that Alvarez & Marsal fed them of “outrageous waste”: such as spending $6 per person to cater lunch to teachers attending full day professional development sessions. “Teachers can bring their own lunches,” George declared even though he himself was ringing up $50 dollar lunches on the district’s credit card. He was equally outraged that some students were taken to and from school by taxi, even though his staff was using taxis to go a block and a half.
By constantly repeating the charge of “waste,” Alvarez & Marsal hid the fact that nearly two-thirds of the job reductions that they proposed had little, if anything, to do with balancing the budget, but a lot to do with ideology. Nine hundred and thirty-nine jobs were not to be eliminated outright, but contracted out to private companies, a practice called “outsourcing.” “Why not outsource that to others who do it as their primary business?” Roberti said. “It applies in the private sector and it applies in education: You have to focus on your core competence.” Or, as Schoemehl and Archibald argued, outsourcing made sense, because, “as everyone knows,” private businesses are more efficient than government. In this instance, that proved not to be the case. Outsourcing would prove to be a costly and illegal strategy, however it would take until March 2007 for Missouri courts to settle the illegality of the practice.
Both the corporate raiders and the democratic opposition were realizing that teachers held the key to the future of St. Louis Public Schools. Roberti was finally going to present a budget to the school board on the evening of Aug. 4, 2003. Before then, he wanted to reassure teachers that although everyone around them might get knocked down, they were going to be all right. In a series of captive meetings during the day on Aug. 4, Roberti and his staff outlined for teachers his view of the district’s financial crisis and promised to protect teachers from cuts. Many of the cuts, he said, were targeting district administration. The classroom would be spared, he said. Many teachers left those meetings pleased and thinking that Roberti was doing a good job. Then came his presentation to the St. Louis Board of Education, and that turned teachers’ opinions around.
Claudia Brady, a computer science teacher at Gateway Institute of Technology, was one of those teachers who attended both a captive meeting in the day and the public school board meeting in the evening. “’I left [the captive meeting] thinking: “This is great. It needs to happen,”‘ she said. At the school board meeting she saw all the protesters and thought, “All these people are crazy,”‘ she said. Then, at around 9 p.m., two hours after the start of the school board meeting, she heard Roberti’s management team describe plans to shift $24 million in health care costs to employees and take a two-year “holiday” from paying into the pension plan. Her immediate reaction was anger. “They lied to us,” she declared. At 11 that morning, Roberti and his staff had denied that they were planning any changes to teachers’ health or pension benefits. “They said they expected to have a plan in October,” Brady said, “and now six hours later they have it all worked out. . . . When I heard that I was really upset.” Teachers’ union president Mary Armstrong said that the union was not told of those changes, or of proposed cuts in sick days and bereavement days, before the public presentation. She emphasized that the union had not had any discussions with the school board about any cuts.
Other teachers said Roberti’s proposal to eliminate 600 classroom positions, in addition to cutting the number of social workers and counselors, would mean more work and bigger classes for the remaining teachers in the classrooms. That was hardly “protecting the classroom.” As those teachers, who had attended the school board meeting, spread stories about Roberti’s “lies,” they fanned the flames of anger. Teachers seemed to be moving towards taking action against the corporate raiders. Prospects for a strong teacher-parent-community coalition seemed good.
The misleading way in which the Alvarez & Marsal team had communicated to teachers opened the door to an alliance between teachers and community-based opponents of the management team’s business model, including parents. Leaders of the organized democratic opposition had settled on a two-pronged strategy for beating back the mayor and school board’s attacks on public education. One part of the strategy was to lobby Kent King, the commissioner of elementary and secondary education, to deny the waiver of certification that Roberti needed to be able to serve as superintendent. The oher part of their strategy was to for a boycott of the first day of school. Their message was simple: Shut it down to chase Roberti out of town and stop the attacks on public education.
The tactics they adopted were simple. They organized people to write letters to the commissioner of education, to call his office on the phone, or to drive two hours to Jefferson City to visit his office in person. They also organized people to write and call their state representatives, state senators, and pastors to urge them to lobbying King to deny the waiver; and they organized people to write to the letters columns of the daily and various weekly newspapers to encourage more people to write to King. At the same time, they also sought letters and phone calls to Claire McCaskill, the state auditor, to urge her to audit the district. They hoped to get an objective analysis from her that would counter some of Roberti’s and the board’s propaganda.
The boycott call would get attention, but it was risky. Many parents, even though outraged at Roberti and the school board, still felt that school was too important to miss. The organizers hoped to settle issues with the school board without it. Asking parents to keep their children away from the first day of school was not like asking people to forego table grapes. It was not going to be an easy thing to do. Privately, leaders of the democratic opposition — they had not yet articulated a communitarian alternative to the board’s business model — said the boycott call was aimed more at teachers. They recognized that teachers held the key to whether or not schools opened and operated or not. And they recognized that teachers were just as angry and fearful as were everyone else. The real objective in pushing for a boycott was to embolden teachers by showing them that the community would support them if they defended public education against Roberti and the destructive acts of the school board. If teachers and children stayed home on the first day of school, it would demonstrate to the board that they had to deal with other powers than just the mayor’s office. There was one problem: none of this was strategy was coordinated with teachers’ leaders.
The call for a boycott set in motion ferocious campaigns by both sides, much like those in a hotly contested election. The democratic opposition sent scores of people out to neighborhoods, supermarkets, churches and street corners every weekend handbilling for the boycott, and they held rallies to support it. The mayor’s office mobilized city workers, and offered half a day off with pay to every city employee who took his or her child to school on opening day. They scheduled speeches for the mayor, Roberti, and Clinkscale at several churches every Sunday. They scheduled press conferences to hammer home the theme that it was irresponsible for anyone to advocate keeping children home from school for even one day when education was the most important route to social advancement. They set-up automated phone calls with recorded messages from the mayor, the governor, Roberti, and others, urging parents to send their children to school. And they advertised on television and radio. The intense campaign, and unusual contest, attracted the attention of reporters from around the country.
Roberti did a couple of things that one normally doesn’t see in an election. He moved the day of the “vote” — the first day of school — pushing it back one week. He also threatened employees’ jobs. He had announced his intention to eliminate 1,400 filled jobs in the school district. Which people would lose their jobs was still up in the air and he used the threat of losing a job and the carrot of keeping it to try to keep some employees in line. Dorris McGahee, for example, was president of The Parent Assembly, the districtwide parent group, and also was an employee of the school district. According to her husband, Roberti threatened to fire her if she did not drop out of the group calling for a boycott of the first day of school. She left the group and the.Roberti administration issued a statement in her name decrying the call for a boycott and urging parents to send their children to school. Privately, she denied making that statement, but publicly she kept her silence. After school started and the boycott was over, she quietly supported the democratic opposition and continued to let the school board’s critics speak at Parent Assembly meetings.
Two weeks before the delayed start of school, the movement to stop corporate attacks on public education seemed to be growing. At 1:30 on Sunday, Aug. 24, the St. Louis Teachers and School Related Personnel Union (AFT Local 420) held a news conference and informational picket at King Tri-A, 1909 N. Kingshighway Boulevard at Cote Brilliante Avenue. King Tri-A had been the site of one of the alternative education programs shut down by Roberti and the new school board. Local 420 leaders said they chose it as the site for a demonstration on the day before they were to go into contract negotiations, because it symbolized both closed schools and outsourcing to cut services. The school board had chosen to outsource all alternative education programs to a private company. Teachers maintained that would reduce the number of children who got the services they needed and thereby lead to more disruption in regular classrooms. “What the people who talk about the importance of the first day of school don’t realize is that if we can’t get disturbed children out of the regular classroom to get the help they need, no one is going to do any learning all year long,” said middle school teacher James Hamilton, a union vice president. At 2 p.m., the St. Louis Ministerial Alliance had announced its opposition to the school board’s recent policies in a press conference at Lane Tabernacle CME Church. For those parents who did not want to send their children to school on Sept. 8, the 32 churches in the Ministerial Alliance would open their doors as sites for “interim tutorials,” staffed by retired teachers. Rev. James Morris, pastor of Lane Tabernacle CME Church and president of the Ministerial Alliance, said pastors were concerned about school closings; the resultant overcrowding in receiving schools where classes would be held in rooms deemed unsuitable for classroom use by a federal court only four years ago; and the “cut-and-slash” policies of the board of education. That evening, a standing room only crowd filled St. Peter AME Church in north St. Louis as representatives of the nine AME churches in St. Louis decried the rash of school closings and cutbacks approved by the board of education. More than 400 people listened intently as church representatives spoke of their opposition to low academic achievement; closing schools; sacrificing student safety to cut costs; outsourcing; the failure to communicate with parents, staff, and community; and the mistreatment of employees. They shouted agreement to Rev. Alvin Smith’s assertion that school closings and cutbacks “are an obvious attempt to displace people of color,” and applauded enthusiastically when he described the AME churches plans for “Operation Safe Haven,” in which AME churches would open their doors from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. to provide “food, shelter, and educational instruction” as an alternative for parents concerned about sending their children into unsafe and chaotic schools.
The heat on the school board continued to build as the week progressed. Local 420 president Mary Armstrong denounced “cut-in deals” — special contracts to political supporters of the mayor’s board members and promotions and jobs to relatives of top administrators — as a roadblock to an agreement.
There also was an eruption of outrage over student bus assignments. During the summer, Roberti had ridiculed previous school district administrations for manually determining bus assignments for students when the district had a computer program to do that sitting on the shelf. That was a terribly inefficient and out-of-date way to work, he said. He fired the director of transportation, brought in someone new, and set the computer program to work. The results were reminiscent of a Marx Brothers or Keystone Kops farce and caused an immediate uproar. Parents flooded call-in shows, newspapers, and the district switchboard with complaints. There were cases where parents on the north side, for example, were told to take their children five or six miles to the south side of town to board a bus to take them back to school on the north side. Parents were told to send their six or seven year old children across interstate highways or major six lane roads to new bus stops. Parents complained that siblings attending the same school got assigned to different bus stops. Families who lived three and four miles from their children’s assigned schools complained of not getting any bus assignments at all. Others looked at their assigned pick-up times and school start and finish times and noted with alarm that their little children were supposed to be on the bus for an hour-and-a-half or more each way. More people began asking if bankruptcy specialists from New York were really competent to run a school system.
On Aug. 28, 2003, the democratic opposition announced a name and a set of demands. Before 400 cheering supporters at the Gateway Classic Building, George Cotton announced that the organized opposition to the corporate-style “reforms” of public education would henceforth call itself “The Community.” The group demanded:
“1. The immediate reinstatement of boiler maintenance to ensure student and staff safety.
“2. A review and, where necessary, reconfiguring of transportation routes to address issues of student safety.
“3. The resignation of the four Slay-backed board members.
“4. An immediate start of a national search for a certified superintendent of schools.
“5. The immediate termination of the current, unqualified, uncertified, and inexperienced director of curriculum and staff development.
“6. The re-opening of the 16 schools closed in July.
“7. The reinstatement of all laid-off personnel until a performance audit was conducted.
“8. An audit by the state auditor.
“9. The creation of a citizen task force to review and report on the operations and delivery of services in the St. Louis Public School to the community.
“10. The firing of all consultants, including Alvarez & Marsal, McConnell Jones Murphy & Lanier, and all the subconsultants they’d hired.”
In an effort to stop the outcry that was also an indirect admission of widespread errors and problems with school bus assignments, Roberti’s administration, on Sept. 2, increased the number of staff people assigned fulltime to resolve transportation complaints from two to 14. That didn’t solve all the problems, however. Two months after the start of school, KTVI Channel 2 News reporter Elliot Davis continued to report on overcrowded buses and overcrowded bus stops — so crowded that buses would pull away with children still waiting in line to get on, children who then went home for lack of transportation to school. Although Roberti had bragged of cutting the number of bus routes by 40 percent to around 300, his transportation director, Deanna Anderson, would later admit that by the end of the year, solutions to mistakes, overcrowding, and excessively long bus trips increased the number of routes back to over 500.
The curriculum director soon resigned and the state auditor announced plans to begin an audit of the school district.
Meanwhile, the campaigns for and against sending children to school on the first day of classes were reaching a climax. School board member Bill Haas declared that attendance of less than 75 percent would amount to a stunning repudiation of the school board’s policies and the Post-Dispatch campaigned for a high turnout to show support for the school board. Television commercials hit the airwaves declaring that holding children out on the first day of school would sabotage their whole year. The pace of automated phone messages from the mayor, the governor, and U.S. Sen. Jean Carnahan intensified.
The board of directors of Congregations Allied for Community Improvement (CACI), a church-based community organization that included AME churches, voted to support Operation Safe Haven. Nine CACI churches advertised that they would offer two meals, educational instruction, and “a safe and caring environment” for children at their facilities from 7 am to 4 pm as an alternative for those families that did not want to send their children to school on the first day of classes. The trustees of the employee pension plan, emboldened by the public outcry against the school board, rejected Roberti’s request that the trustees give the school board a two-year “holiday” from payments into the pension plan.
Brown and some of the other leaders of The Community were so jazzed by the rising tide of protest that they had upped the ante and begun calling for a school boycott that went on for as long as it took to force Roberti and Alvarez & Marsal out of the school district.
Then, just when community opposition to the school board’s plans seemed to be reaching a peak, Armstrong went to Roberti’s hotel and agreed to a one-year extension of AFT Local 420’s existing contract with the school district, with no salary increases. She then presented it to members as a choice of either accepting the agreement or immediately and without preparation going on strike and facing the loss of the their jobs and arrest, because public employee strikes are illegal in Missouri.
Sept. 8 dawned clear and mild with reporters from around the country gathered in St. Louis to see who would win the battle over starting school: the political establishment or a bunch of African-American neighborhood activists. In reality, however, the teachers’ union had already sealed the fate of the boycott when they cut the legs out from under it with their separate agreement to maintain the status quo.
Attendance on the first day of school in St. Louis tends to jump up and down from year to year. Over the previous six years, first day attendance had varied from 74 percent to 79 percent of enrollment. In 2002, the school district claimed attendance on the first day of school was 76.6 percent. Would word-of-mouth and donated paper leaflets drive attendance lower than the average first day turnout of 76 percent? Would the work of three public relations firms, a million dollars in advertising, and the pleas of leading state politicians lift the turnout higher?
At Vashon High School, the interim principal, popular basketball coach Floyd Irons, cancelled classes, brought in a band, and held a school-wide party to draw teenagers into the school. Meanwhile, the board’s opponents filled the street in front of the school board building with protesters, who then marched to City Hall and jammed the hallways in front of the mayor’s office.
At a 6 p.m. news conference to a room full of local and out-of-town reporters, Assistant Superintendent Charlene Jones announced that the first day attendance was 76.4 percent of the projected enrollment of 38,433. An ebullient Roberti claimed victory over the boycotters and declared the attendance rate was two points higher than in the previous year (he claimed Hammonds hadn’t counted students right, just like he claimed Hammonds hadn’t counted money right). In his excitement, he kissed Irons for reporting 85 percent attendance at Vashon, more than double the 37 percent attendance on the first day of school one year earlier. The next day, attendance at Vashon fell below 50 percent, but the district-wide attendance rate jumped an unprecedented nine points to 85 percent, which led dissident school board member Bill Haas and leaders of The Community to claim that the boycott had cut the attendance rate by nine points.
In essence, the battle was a tie with the tie going to the possessors of the authority over the school district. Although there was an unprecedented campaign by corporate, church, and political leaders to get children to school, attendance on the first day of school was about the same as usual. Roberti, however, made it clear that he considered the turnout on the first day of school an endorsement of his plans for the school district. After declaring victory over the boycott, he announced that he would turn his attention to negotiating concessions from the custodians and stationary engineers and then outsourcing their jobs and the jobs of all of the district’s other maintenance workers. Within the week, he had centralized authority over teacher hiring and job assignments by firing the director of the Office of Site Based Management and his secretary and rescinding the ability of school principals to recruit their own staff. Late additions to the agenda for the school board meeting on Sept. 16 included: outsourcing payroll and check processing to ADP National Account Services, outsourcing benefit services to ADP, and outsourcing reprographics and mailroom services to IKON Management Services. Also on the new hit list: special education. Roberti said that if the school district was ever going to control its costs, it had to find a way to restrict access to special education services.
In the run-up to the first day of school, Roberti backed off of some confrontations, but as he would show in coming months, those were only temporary, tactical retreats. Much to everyone’s surprise, however, the democratic opposition and the community did not collapse after schools opened. They remained organized and continued to mobilized thousands of protesters to engage Roberti and “the Slayt,” the school board’s corporate majority, in a protracted struggle.
Many in the community were disappointed that teachers had gone to work, and they were disappointed the boycott had failed to halt Roberti, but they hardly viewed it as a major defeat. They intensified lobbying of their state officials, picketed the homes of school board members, and continued to target school board meetings. The group’s leaders, however, could not leave the rupture with the teachers’ union alone. On her radio show, Brown roundly criticized AFT Local 420 president Mary Armstrong for “selling out” the community and her members. Brown would long consider Armstrong’s decision to settle for a contract extension the great betrayal of 2003. Armstrong responded publicly with an open letter critical of Brown.
If Roberti and the school board majority thought their victory over the boycott and the open split between leaders of the community and the AFT leadership marked the end of any organized opposition to their plans, they were in for a rude awakening. One area that Roberti had targeted for cuts was special education. In laying out his cuts to senior staff before the first day of school, Roberti had set a target of reducing the enrollment in special education by 60 percent. When the memo leaked it touched off such a firestorm of protest that Roberti he backed off that goal rather than risks of activating the parents of children with disabilities in protests with the community. On Sept. 17, 2003, bowing to an avalanche of complaints from parents — complaints aired on local television and radio broadcasts — Roberti and the school board acknowledged that the district had more problems with Alvarez & Marsal’s transportation plan than they had previously admitted to, and they established a transportation committee to work at solving the problems. Among the problems that parents addressed to Roberti and board president Darnetta Clinkscale was a widespread problem of late running buses. Buses got children to school late, meaning they were not only late for class, but those who qualified for free meals also missed out on breakfast. In the afternoon, return buses were dropping children off at some bus stops as much as an hour later than their assigned drop-off times. Less than two weeks after the start of schools, Roberti also backed off his pledge not to fill any open teaching positions in order to reduce spending. Rank and file teachers and the community were able to expose examples of severely overcrowded classrooms — classes that had five or ten more children in them than was allowed by state law — and compel Roberti to hire more teachers.
The school board’s regular business meeting on Sept. 23, 2003, the first school board meeting after the start of school, opened to more than 300 noisy protesters. The protestors interrupted presentations with catcalls, so much so that President Clinkscale and board member Amy Hilgemann argued with the crowd and angrily rejected protestors’ demands that they should let the public comment on issues. Significantly, a representative of Missouri Auditor Claire McCaskill attended the meeting, announced the start of an audit of the school district, and gave out a hot line number for whistle blowers and anyone else with information for the auditors. Both protests and victories, however, were being ignored by the news media. So, too, was the escalating cost of having Alvarez & Marsal manage the school district. Explaining that the company lacked expertise in human relations, Roberti got the school board to approve hiring yet another consultant for $180,000 plus expenses for six months.
In the final week of September, leaders of the community tried to come to grips with a news blackout on their protests. Maverick civil rights activist Percy Green met with editors of the Post-Dispatch to ask them why they were not covering protests against Roberti’s and the school board majority’s policies. Green had organized some attention-getting civil rights protests in the 1960s and 1970s. In 1964, for example, he scaled one of the unfinished legs of what was to become the 630-foot tall stainless steel Gateway Arch and unfurled a banner calling for an end to discrimination in hiring. Green told a roomful of people at a meeting of the community that an editor at the Post-Dispatch told him that the newspaper was not covering the protests because “they aren’t news.” Shortly thereafter, the newspaper ran a triumphalist commentary by Judge David Mason that pointed to the absence of news coverage of protests as proof that the protesters had lost and been sent packing. Mason’s wife had been the Black Leadership Roundtable’s first choice to run on the Slayt, but she had declined.
The community’s direct action committee made plans to regain the attention of the news media. People not in the committee were told that something was planned for the next school board meeting, but they were not told what. What did happen was pure political theater staged to attract the attention of the news media.
The Oct. 7, 2003 school board meeting took place not in the large auditorium at Carr Lane Middle School, but in an empty office area in the school district headquarters building in downtown St. Louis. Police in several police cars were parked at curb just in case they were needed. Inside the jury-rigged meeting room there was a conference table and a phalanx of about 70 plastic chairs set up off to one side. On the other side of the conference room there was another table loaded with sandwiches, fruit, vegetables, cookies, and drinks for school board members and senior staff. At the posted meeting time, the audience occupied about two-thirds of the seats. The school board filed into the room and sat down. President Clinkscale called the meeting to order and then promptly moved into a closed executive session. The board members stood and filed out to a smaller, private meeting room. As the time passed, more people filed into the public meeting room. A teacher loudly declared: “They’re telling me I have to brown bag my lunch to meetings. I’m going to get my lunch now,” and walked up to the food table and filled a plate. A dozen other audience members joined her. Soon, there was nothing left on the food table but one sandwich, some cookie crumbs, and a bottle or two of water.
More time passed. More people filed in. A janitor brought in more chairs. Camera crews arrived from three TV stations. Soon, there are about 120 chairs set up in the room and each one was occupied. People were standing in the back of the room and along both sides waiting for the start of the public school board meeting. By that time, the school board had been gone from the room for almost an hour since they opened the meeting. The crowd grew more and more annoyed and restless. Finally the school board, consultants, and senior district staff finally filed back into the room. Bill Haas snagged the last sandwich. Other school board members and staff milled around the empty food table looking stunned and irritated. Chuckles rippled through the audience.
Clinkscale, mangling speech with the abandon of a George W. Bush, announced that she was “readjourning the meeting.” Then, to further snickers from the audience, she lectured the public that they must “stay in order” so the board could get through its business. That was unusual for her and a clear sign that she expected a disturbance of some sort. Meanwhile, police officers moved into the hallway outside the room. They were ready for a disturbance, too.
Back behind the meeting table, Roberti presented a request to give McConnell Jones Lanier & Murphy (MJLM) another $426,000 on top of their one-half-million dollar contract. Haas and Roberti dueled over whether the consultants’ contracts had any cap on spending. Roberti said they did not. The board’s attorney, Ken Brostron, said consultants would have to justify any charges over their contract amounts, and the board could either accept the increase or terminate the contracts. The crowd broke into the discussion with chants of “Terminate. Terminate.”
Rochell Moore moved to cancel MJLM’s contract. Haas seconded the motion. Roberti, shaking his head, objected.
Suddenly Greg Tumlin, a six-foot-tall former school security guard, rose from his front row seat, took two steps towards the school board, and yelled, “I’m tired of this.” Getting up on top of the conference table on his hands and knees, he stared straight at Roberti and pounded the table and yelled, “You can’t keep spending our money.” Pandemonium erupted. Roberti jumped up out of his seat and ran for the door, followed by his co-consultants pushing each other to get out of the room. The TV cameras caught every second of it. The fear on their faces and their mad rush for the exits was plastered across the evening news.
Security guards rushed towards Tumlin, but before they could reach him two more protesters got out of their seats and sat down on the floor behind him. The crowd chanted, “Terminate ’em! Terminate ’em!” and surged forward as people tried to better see what was happening. Police poured in through the rear door. They arrested the three protesters and one bystander. The whole thing probably took less than two minutes. When the school board came back in the room they skipped over the rest of the action items on their agenda, staying just long enough to approve the agenda for their next meeting and adjourn. In only 120 seconds, Tumlin and the community had exploded the myth that the opposition to Roberti had been crushed. He showed that opponents retained the power to disrupt the school board and the commitment to go to jail in defense of public education. It might have amounted to a completely empty gesture, if not for what happened next.
Six days later, on Oct. 13, 2003, 28 of the district’s 32 stationary engineers called in sick. The stationary engineers were the aristocrats of district’s maintenance force. In those schools that used high-pressure boilers to heat water to heat the buildings, mainly high schools, the engineers operated the boilers. Those boilers also provided hot water to the school kitchens. The stationary engineers also were in charge of opening and closing water valves and of turning the electricity on and off in the schools, and in many cases, they had the keys to the maintenance rooms, which contained the controls for the heat, the electricity, and the water. The sick-out meant that some the school district’s bigger schools had no heat, no lights, no hot water, and perforce no food. Even after some principals were told how to turn on lights, they could not do it, because they were locked out of the rooms that contained the main switches. The next day, the sick-out spread when lead custodians in some of the smaller buildings spontaneously joined it, leaving more buildings in the dark. Maintenance workers and custodians had been told that their jobs were going to be outsourced to Sodexho, which would hire them for at least 90 days, and they would lose benefits. While other maintenance workers were scattered amongst various unions, or no union, the stationary engineers all belonged to one union.
The sick-out sparked student walkouts at four of the district’s 12 high schools, and student protests at the school district headquarters and at the school board meeting on the night of Oct. 14. The student protests took just about everybody by surprise.
Student protesters presented themselves to the school board and the public as an orderly, racially integrated group of students in contrast to typical television images of St. Louis public high school students as unruly and black. Jay Thomas, a white transfer student from St. Louis County, led a multiracial group of uniformed ROTC students from the Cleveland Naval Junior ROTC High School that stood together in formation as he criticized the school board’s management of the district and accused it of breaking the law. Bianca Harvey, an African-American student from the city, led a multiracial group from Roosevelt High School. She emphasized that the lack of water and electricity were but symptoms of a larger issue: the warehousing of students without teaching them. “We have 48 kids in a class with one teacher,” she said. “I’m not getting the attention and teaching I need to prepare me for college,” she added. And to keep students from protesting about it, she said, the administration went around and locked the classroom doors after the start of each class to keep students in their rooms.
More than 600 people packed the auditorium for that school board meeting, mainly students and parents. Board members Archibald, Hilgemann, and Schoemehl inflamed the crowd by walking out of the meeting instead of listening to students. Television and newspaper pictures of black and white students and parents standing together in anger over conditions in the schools shredded the story that the board, the mayor, and the Post-Dispatch, had tried to promote of parents and students solidly supporting the board, and debunked that claim that the board’s critics were only employees concerned about their jobs.
Activists could be excused if they saw another chance for a broad, grassroots coalition to save public schools and improve public education, but that opportunity was lost before they could grab it. At the very moment the protests seemed to be growing, the Service Employees International Union, which represented custodians and food service workers, undercut the dream of a united opposition. The SEIU quietly capitulated to Roberti and the school board majority with the hopes that concessions would buy them a separate peace. The union agreed to a 6 percent pay cut, cheaper insurance, and a 12 percent in the number of custodians in an effort to preserve the jobs of the remaining custodians as school district employees. The food service workers they abandoned to outsourcing.
Activists talked with students and their parents at the end of the school board meeting, but Roberti and the school board acted more quickly. The very next day, Roberti invited student protest leaders to join a new student advisory council with the added inducement that if they directed their comments to him and did not say anything more in public they would each receive a scholarship for college. Aramark funded the scholarships. Aramark did not have any contracts with the school district, but was already widely rumored to be the company that would take over food service, although Roberti and the school district had yet to put the food service operation out for bid. Three months, Alvarez & Marsal and MJLM did indeed rate Aramark’s bid as the “best” bid for providing food service.
The Operating Engineers then made their separate peace, but without the stiff concessions agreed to by the SEIU. The Operating Engineers got a five-year agreement that promised to keep the stationary engineers as employees of St. Louis Public Schools. Their only concession was to accept the same reduction in health care benefits that was being applied to other school district employees. Local AFT President Mary Armstrong would later blame the Operating Engineers for breaking ranks and forcing everyone to go it alone in negotiations with the school board. Less than two years after the Operating Engineers got their agreement, however, the school board majority would decide to unilaterally end it.
Emboldened by the stationary engineers’ success, some teachers engaged in a job action without the support of their union. Nearly 300 of the district’s 3,000 teachers called in sick to protest Roberti’s announcement of a unilateral change to the teachers’ sick pay system, despite his agreement in September to extend the collective agreement with teachers for a full year. Roberti had announced that the school board would no longer go along with the traditional practice in Missouri of allowing teachers to bank sick days and sell them back to the school district when they retired. Teachers across the state were entitled to sick days, but most districts, as a perfect attendance incentive for teachers so that districts did not have to hire as many substitute teachers, offered to buy sick days back from teachers if they did not use them, thus putting extra money in their pockets if they came to school every day. Many teachers banked their sick days until they retired or became seriously ill, so they could get the money when they really needed it. Roberti attacked that practice as wasteful and announced plans to wipe clean the slate of unused sick days and institute a new “use ‘em or lose ‘em” policy under which teachers who did not use their 10 time off days during the school year simply lost them. Many teachers were outraged. They had looked on banking sick days as a way of banking money, and Roberti’s plan was akin to draining their bank accounts of money they had set aside and saved for years.
Some teachers, who thought their union was not doing enough to protect their money, called in sick in protest. If not doomed from the start by a lack of organization among a wider body of teachers, it was certainly doomed after the leadership of the teachers’ union came out against it. Roberti’s team quickly zeroed in on Richard “Big Rich” Bates, one of the vice presidents of AFT Local 420, as the leader of the sick-out. Within hours they had called him downtown for a disciplinary meeting and told him they would take no action against him if he called off the sick-out. Meanwhile, union president Armstrong send word to building stewards to tell teachers to ignore anyone who said they should call in sick on the next day, and to tell them it was not sanctioned by the union.
Bates always claimed that Armstrong had fingered him to the administration. He filed charges against her in the union for conduct unbecoming a union member. Local 420’s executive board acted as the trial board to hear the charges against the local union’s president. By a one-vote majority, the executive board rejected the charges. Bates, embittered by the experience, pulled back from the union and 18 months later he was given a job in administration.
Over the next couple of months a series of mini-scandals dogged the business faction majority of the school board as they prepared to dramatically change the way the school district operated. Although sideshows in their campaign to divert a public good into opportunities for private profit, these scandals developed the image of the business-style reformers as “vultures” or “privateers.”
Two of the scandals dinged the polished image of Robert Archibald, executive director of the Missouri Historical Society, who had not previously been publicly involved in politics or any high-profile business deals.
The first scandal erupted when it seemed as if Archibald was trying to make off with the school district’s treasure trove of historical artifacts and documents to enrich the Historical Society’s collection. The school district maintained an educational museum and archives that covered its 160-year history. Classes could visit the museum to see a little bit of what school was like 50 years ago or 150 years ago or view works of art donated by famous American artists, who had graduated from St. Louis Public Schools. Teachers could borrow materials from frontier artifacts to stuffed animals to use in classroom instruction. Visiting scholars would delve into the archives for their research. And grants paid the cost of maintaining the archives and museum, so they did not drain funds from classrooms. Roberti, however, declared that a school district had no business maintaining an historical collection and asked the school board to donate it Archibald’s Historical Society.
Assistant superintendent Larry Hutchins issued a memo to staff asking for ideas on how to store and use the material so that it did not all go to the Archibald-run Missouri Historical Society. Hutchins told St. Louis Schools Watch he opposed giving the historical collection to the Missouri Historical Society because, “I believe our children would not get much of a chance to see them. I think they should be preserved for our schools as the primary users.”
The image Archibald nakedly grasping for school district booty apparently was too much even for supporters of him and the mayor. The school board put off the proposal for six months and did not vote on it until after a court removed one of opponents of the corporate-backed majority from the board and the mayor appointed a replacement. Even though the school board then voted to give the archives and historical artifacts to the Historical Society, district staff never carried out the decision.
Hot on the heels of the archives scandal, Archibald and his allies sand deeper into the mud when they voted in favor of selling one of the school district’s most historic buildings — Theresa School, former home of Harris Teachers’ College and site of the first school-based radio station in the country — to a politically-connected developer that wanted to tear down the building to put in a Walgreen’s-anchored strip shopping center. Archibald and his corporate-oriented majority had rejected the highest bid for the building, by a developer who wanted to preserve the structure and turn it into apartments, in order to give it to the developer that wanted to demolish the 98-year-old building, which was designed by famed school architect William Ittner and was on the National Register of Historic Places. When objections rained down on the board, and especially on Archibald, who, building preservations had assumed would be sympathetic to their cause since he was an historian, the board quickly backtracked. Archibald and the other board members who had voted for razing the building insisted that they had not known the building was historic and that they were not influenced by a letter from the mayor asking them to accept the strip center developer’s proposal. In order to placate building preservationists, the school board majority quickly adopted a policy of preserving historic school buildings and re-bid Theresa School, eventually picking a new developer to turn it into apartments. In order to tamp down scandals, they also adopted a new policy to keep the identities of bidders a secret.
Grasping for the school district’s historical treasures, taking a low bid in order to sell school real estate to a politically-connected developer, letting a university connected to board member Schoemehl buy another school for a low price, that string of decisions in late 2003 gave the impression of the school board majority as agents for gangs of pirates grabbing choice pits of treasure from the body of St. Louis Public Schools.
Then came the proposal to outsource building maintenance to Sodexho.
Roberti painted the employment of building trades (e.g. electricians, plumbers, and painters), laborers, gardeners, and the architects and engineers who oversaw major repair and construction projects for the school district as wasteful and as something unrelated to the operation of schools. “This is not a jobs program. This is a school system here to teach kids, not provide jobs to the community,” he said. Yet, schools and their grounds do, in fact, need to be cleaned and maintained. In spite of Roberti’s comments, somebody still had to perform those functions, and his proposal actually was not to stop doing them, but to contract with a private company, Sodexho, to do them.
Roberti’s proposal was to give Sodexho a five-year, $55 million contract to perform “facility management services.” Under the agreement, the school board laid-off 102 maintenance trade workers, 12 gardeners, a laborer, and six architects and engineers; and Sodexho rehired 70 of the maintenance trade workers. Custodians, represented by SEIU Local 50, had bought a temporary reprieve from outsourcing by making wage and benefit concessions worth nearly $4 million a year. The stationary engineers, who won a reprieve from outsourcing after their two-day strike, made benefit concessions worth a total of $52,000 a year.
Odysseus Lanier, principal in McConnell Jones Lanier & Murphy (MJLM), organized the outsourcing process and recommended Sodexho. He said the Sodexho contract would save St. Louis Public Schools $5.9 million a year. Sodexho was only slightly less optimistic, claiming St. Louis Public Schools would save $5 million a year under the contract. In neither case, however, did their numbers add up.
The proposed contract with Sodexho for building maintenance was leaked to St. Louis Schools Watch before the school board vote. I was able to analyze it and show that with the rates of pay and number of positions specified in the contract, outsourcing to Sodexho would cost the school district millions more than keeping that same work in-house. That analysis helped fortify opponents of the move. School board members responded to their forceful protests by canceling their public appearances, even standing up a community meeting at one of the city’s main African-American churches: St. Paul AME. More than 200 people showed up for the advertised Oct. 30, 2003 community forum on St. Louis schools, but the school board members were no shows. Ninety-seven of the maintenance trades workers petitioned the school board for the opportunity to negotiate cost savings with the board in return for getting to remain school board employees. Their request was ignored.
Lanier and Sodexho based their savings estimates on the cost of building and grounds maintenance to St. Louis Public Schools in fiscal year 2002-2003 compared to Sodexho’s contract terms. That was no more valid than comparing toddlers to high schoolers. Fiscal year 2002-03 was before Roberti closed 16 school closings; Sodexho was coming in after. A&M had already included layoffs of maintenance workers associated with closing 16 schools in its estimates of the money saved by closing the schools. Attributing those savings, amounting to about $2 million a year, to the unrelated Sodexho contract amounted to double counting. Lanier also counted the $4 million a year in concessions that custodians and stationary engineers made to avoid outsourcing as savings from outsourcing building trades to Sodexho. He also included $373,000 in savings from eliminating the district’s in-house architects and engineers, even though it was obvious that the school board would have to replace them somehow. As it turned out, replacing them was not cheap. Three months after laying off the architects and engineers, Sodexho agreed to provide the school district with services similar to those previously provided by the now laid-off architects and engineers for an additional cost of nearly $1 million a year — almost three times what the district had been spending to employ its own people to provide those services.
At the time of the initial Sodexho contract, I estimated that, if one considered it independently of school closings, layoffs, and the concessions that some employees made to avoid outsourcing, the contract would cost the district about $3 million a year more than doing the same work in-house. Lanier angrily retorted, “you can’t separate” out those factors. “It is a package,” he insisted. “It only works as a package.” Since the district always had the authority to reduce the number of employees as it reduced the number of schools, however, and custodians made their concessions in order to avoid outsourcing, there is no reason the school board could not have stopped short of outsourcing once it had obtained the concessions it wanted. Taxpayers gained nothing from outsourcing. All it did was shift some of the money the district had wrenched out of workers away from the district’s coffers over to a private corporation. Sodexho representative Bruce Smith conceded that the specified savings really were independent of the actual contract.
The staff, who made such apparent looting possible, were well compensated — far above compensation levels that were typical in St. Louis before Roberti began implementing his Wall Street-style reforms. Hefty increases in executive pay contrasted with wage cuts imposed on the people who actually worked in the schools, further cemented views that school reform in St. Louis was about greed instead of need.
Prior to the corporate takeover of the school board, St. Louis Public Schools had only four employees making more than $100,000 a year. The highest paid of those was the superintendent, who received an annual salary of $183,180. The next highest paid was the chief academic officer, who received $110,000 a year. The business people who replaced them got paid much more. Roberti got $932,450 plus expenses for his first 10 months as acting superintendent. Karen Marsal, another member of Alvarez & Marsal, was paid $619,775 plus expenses for 10 months work as the intermin chief operating officer; and Sajan George, also from Alvarez & Marsal, got $732,750 plus expenses for 10 months as the interim chief financial officer.
New “permanent” executives hired by the corporate-backed board majority also started with salaries that were much higher than the salaries of their pre-Alvarez & Marsal predecessors, plus they got bonuses if they actually did what was expected of them. Manuel Silva took the position of chief operating officer for $200,000 a year plus $30,000 in bonuses. He got a $5,000 bonus for reorganizing the human resources department; $5,000 for issuing a request for proposals for new transportation contracts; $5,000 for drafting a plan for getting funds to put a computer on each teacher’s desk; $5,000 for drafting a plan to complete deferred building and grounds maintenance; $5,000 for outsourcing food services; and $5,000 for establishing procedures and the means for moving or discarding property “in open and closed facilities.” It should be noted that none of the bonuses were contingent upon any of the plans actually working, or on increasing the quality or effectiveness of any services or department. Chester Edmonds, the previous head of operations, had earned $105,000 a year.
Harry Rich, the new chief financial officer, was hired at an annual salary of $175,000. Pre-Roberti, the top financial officer in the district was the treasurer. George Byron, the last pre-Roberti treasurer, was paid $81,149 a year. Rich’s position was both new and in addition to the office of treasurer, which was mandated by state law.
The director of human resource, Charles Pineau, became the chief human resources officer with a salary bump from $85,000 to $150,000. David Flieg, the executive assistant for administration, got his title changed to deputy superintendent and his salary got raised from $86,005 a year to $140,000. Floyd Crues, executive director of alternative education also got made a new deputy superintendent and got his salary raised from $79,000 to $140,000 a year. The new technology director made $60,000 a year more than his predecessor; and the new transportation director made $11,000 a year more than her predecessor.
Helen Herndon, a secretary in St. Louis Public Schools and a former Christian missionary in northern Africa, was outraged by what she saw as the hypocrisy and immoral behavior of raising executive salaries while demanding that lower level employees take pay or benefit cuts and more work to reduce expenses. She became the main public spokesperson for a conservative religious critique of the corporate reform of St. Louis Public Schools. She became a prolific writer and e-mailer, who expressed the theme of business people enriching themselves from the public school treasury in many different variations. An early commentary that she submitted to the Post-Dispatch expressed the core of her critique. The newspaper would not print her essay, so I published it in St. Louis Schools Watch.
“The turnaround firm hired to fix the city school system is succeeding in not turning around the district, but of turning it over on its head. Despite constant reminders that the school district is financially stressed and in danger of going bankrupt, salaries of top-level staff are raised at astronomical rates, and new hires are being brought in at extravagant salaries. For a public and not-for-profit organization, such actions are questionable and alarming.
“Until recently, public school education paid modest, but competitive salaries to its bureaucrats, while not distancing them unreasonably from the core of education, the teaching and support staff. However, several very highly paid positions have recently been created with titles of “chief” in front of them . . . [with] salaries doubled or tripled over those who previously served in such capacities. It is reported that a new principal to the system has been recently hired in at a salary ($95,000) higher than that of any other principal in the district. Such actions in dire financial circumstances communicate a message to employees who have given years of dedication and service, who contribute positively to a troubled school district, and who have persevered under tremendous change and pressures.
“The first message that comes through such actions is that present staff and employees aren’t valued. Most have had to surrender assets to the financially troubled district either in loss of employment, loss of salary, or loss of benefits. For new hires who are untried and unproven in public school education to come in at vastly higher salaries adds insult to injury to those who have
given and endured through many trials in the past decade.
“The second message emerging is that, though public school education is not-for-profit, it profits some individuals greatly. They earn more than congressmen and women who are also in public service and have served for years. How healthy and reasonable can such actions be at this juncture in time and economic history?
“. . . How can such high-salaried persons relate to a community they are supposed to serve, a community that is economically stressed and in which most of the children qualify for free or reduced-price meals? Corporate CEOs do not have to relate to such a community; they relate to stockholders, who are also interested in monetary returns, not the well being of a mass of children and future citizens. An apparent absurdity emerges.
“However, perhaps the most stinging consequence of such actions affects the current employees and staff who suffer the most loss. In the name of economy and saving the district, they sink further behind financially. They receive no raise or cost-of-living adjustment, they lose benefits, they accept more pressure and stress with such deep cuts in staffing, and they recognize how little they are valued in the overall scheme. Demoralization sets in and is epidemic across the district. It is not difficult to understand why some might question, ‘What have we done to deserve this?’ Many stayed with a troubled
district even though they could have gone elsewhere for better benefits.
“. . . Acting Superintendent William Roberti was quoted as saying, ‘You get what you pay for.’ Nothing truer can be said, but that principle applies not only to top-level employees, it applies to all. Commitment, dedication, perseverance under adverse conditions, experience, endurance — all of these virtues should count for something.”
Greed in the form of huge salaries and fire sale prices for public school property possibly might have been forgiven if this corporate makeover of St. Louis Public Schools had improved education, but it didn’t. On almost every measure — graduation and dropout rates, test scores, discipline problems — the changes instituted by Roberti and the corporate-backed board majority made things worse. Roberti’s demolition of the Urban Systemic Program in St. Louis Public Schools illustrates the severe damage he did to the school district’s capacity to instruct students.
In school year 2003-04, St. Louis Public Schools were in the fourth year of a five-year, $2.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation to reform math and science instruction in St. Louis schools. The successes of the Urban Systemic Program in St. Louis in raising test scores, closing the test score gap between white and black students, and increasing the number of African-American high school students enrolling in and completing math and science courses had been so dramatic that the National Science Foundation had featured the St. Louis program a year earlier as a model for urban districts in its fiscal year 2003 budget request to Congress. Mulughetta Teferi, who directed the Urban Systemic Program in St. Louis before Roberti arrived, said that in the first three years of the program, the number of students at each elementary school scoring proficient or better on the state’s math tests rose from a range of 10-18 percent to over 50 percent. Three years after Roberti gutted the program schools’ scores had fallen back down into the 15-20 percent range of students scoring proficient on state tests.
A key leg of the Urban Systemic Program in St. Louis was a series of extremely popular monthly professional development workshops. Up to 400 teachers would attend those Saturday workshops. They got paid to go, but more importantly, as teacher after teacher would tell me in the following years, they learned things that they could actually use in their classrooms, things that actually helped them teach. Whenever teachers would tell me that, they always contrasted those sessions with “most” professional development, which they described as a waste of time. Many of the USP professional development workshops were led by actual teachers in the district, teachers identified as “master teachers” by the Urban Systemic Program for their ability to excite an understanding of mathematics in their students.
Roberti eliminated all of that professional development. Learning to teach all children effectively, and especially learning to teach in a new way as demanded by the Urban Systemic Program, cannot be done in one lesson. As with any complex ability, such as playing piano or playing quarterback in football, getting better means continuously learning and practicing new things. Roberti took that away. The textbook and teaching materials used by the Urban Systemic Program were very different from the traditional ways of teaching mathematics that teachers had learned in college and used in their classrooms. Changing those ingrained teaching methods took sustained effort. And, as St. Louis had a high rate of teacher mobility, teachers new to the district usually needed training in this new way of teaching math. Roberti took all of that away.
The other leg of the Urban Systemic Program was a cadre of coaches who not only identified master teachers, but also went into the schools to work with individual teachers to improve their math and science teaching methods. They collected and analyzed data to find what was really working, and kept teachers informed of the latest research in teaching math and science, and developed pacing and curriculum guides. Roberti abolished those positions. He eliminated 15 of the 16 positions in the Urban Systemic Program, keeping only one person to manage the grant and write reports to the NSF.
Less than a year before Roberti arrived to take over St. Louis Public Schools, Superintendent Hammonds was impressed enough by the gains made in math and science education under the Urban Systemic Program that he asked Teferi to replicate that program in communication arts and social studies. Teferi had barely had time to populate the new structure of elementary, middle, and high school communication arts and social studies curriculum coaches (or supervisors) when Roberti came to town and abolished it.
The only note about any of these changes in the Post-Dispatch was a small item reporting that Roberti had “saved” the NSF grant, a claim that NSF spokesman said was simply untrue. In an e-mail responding to my question about Roberti’s claim, he wrote: “I want to be clear in stating that at no time was the St. Louis Urban Systemics Program ever in jeopardy of losing funding. I’m not sure how anyone can claim that given the facts.”
The way Roberti masked cuts to the Urban Systemic Program with claims of saving the program typified his approach to curriculum and professional development. Hiding behind empty promises of reform, he reversed the academic progress the district was making and left the school system without the capacity to again change direction to move forward.
Roberti also eliminated the curriculum office and transferred all the responsibilities for research, development, and professional development to two executive directors, who attempted to operate from their desks instead of from within schools. He wiped out not just those positions funded out of the general operating budget, but also those funded by grants. There was no immediate implosion from such cuts. Roberti finished gutting — or reorganizing — the administrative offices that supported curriculum and instruction in June 2004. Elementary MAP scores peaked on the MAP given in April 2005, but teacher turnover combined with the absence of effective professional development combined to continually weaken instruction. Test scores on state MAP tests and the Terra Nova dropped in 2006 and again 2007. The Terra Nova is a test that school districts across the country use. The district began the slow process of reconstructing a curriculum department and reinstituting professional development in the 2006-2007 academic year.
In place of the district’s own curriculum development and professional development, Roberti and his immediate successors simply bought products from vendors. In 2005-06, St. Louis Public Schools bought the elementary school curriculum used by Houston, Texas, and a high school curriculum from Kaplan Inc., a division of the Washington Post Publishing Co., and the school district began paying consultants up to a $100,000 a pop to parachute in to give a couple of speeches over a couple of days. Such “seminars” were universally derided by teachers as a waste of time and did nothing to stop the district’s academic scores from falling.
Any large school district that recognizes that there are different types of students with different needs will have different programs to serve them. One of the first educational programs to face Roberti’s axe was alternative education Roberti outsourced the district’s alternative education programs for students with severe behavior problems. On July 15, 2003, the school board accepted Roberti’s recommendations to close its two alternative schools with 284 seats in order to save $1.1 million. Three months later, the school board voted to accept Roberti’s recommendation to contract with an outside provider of alternative education services, ACE Learning Centers of St. Louis, to provide alternative education to up to 240 students for $1.2 million.
Roberti first hid the cuts to curriculum support behind a much-ballyhooed launch of a “literacy initiative.” He announced that he was bringing the former chancellor of New York City Public Schools, Rudy Crew, to town as an education advisor. Crew would come to St. Louis for a couple of days a month to oversee staff development of the literacy initiative. Assistant superintendent David Flieg said that all of the instructional coordinator positions in elementary schools would be replaced with literacy coordinators to focus attention on literacy. “Every school is going to a literacy based curriculum,” he said, explaining that a literacy-based curriculum involves theme, or project based teaching in which spelling words are part of the math, science, and even physical education lessons. Instead of teaching the four core academic subjects separately, he said, they would be taught in an integrated fashion that boosts reading for understanding.
The school board majority approved the plan for the literacy initiative in February 2004. In addition to literacy coaches, the plan included adoption of a single reading series for the whole district; installation of a computer-based reading lab in every school with software (e.g. Plato or Orchard 180) to help struggling students improve their reading; and professional development in differentiated instruction, which is teaching to the various levels of ability in a classroom instead of to one level. The plan was never implemented, however. Barely a month later, Roberti got the school board to rescind its approval of a new textbook recommended by a district textbook committee (the school board ordered a different text book eight months later). In June, he abolished literacy coaches in every school and replaced them with literacy specialists who would serve three or four schools each. The computer-based reading labs were not widely installed and never staffed, and professional development in differentiated instruction did not happen (Two years later, a new superintendent, Creg Williams, would denounce differentiated instruction as “academic suicide”). By May, Rudy Crew had moved on to Miami. The two assistant superintendents who had worked with him to develop the literacy initiative were both out of a job before Roberti’s contract ended at the end of June. Before the damage that Alvarez & Marsal had done to the district would become readily apparent, Roberti would have moved on to contracts with New Orleans public schools and New York City public schools.
At the time, the democratic opposition blasted curriculum cuts as “incompetent.” Brown, for example, often said that any idiot can come with an ax and start chopping, but it takes knowledge to figure out what is working and what is not and cut expenditures really are wasteful while preserving those things that actually work and promote learning. She was fond of saying that Roberti’s cuts illustrated his incompetence. Perhaps, or perhaps Roberti and the school board majority with which he was working knew exactly what they were doing and intended to weaken the system of public education. Perhaps Roberti’s cuts illustrated destructiveness instead of incompetence.
Outside of the unions, there were two institutional sources of opposition to Roberti and the corporate-style reform of St. Louis public schools. One of these was the board of trustees of the Public School Retirement System of the City of St. Louis and the other was the minority on the school board.
The Public School Retirement System of St. Louis, established by state law, had 13 trustees: four appointed by the school board and nine elected by employees. Two of the trustees were elected by administrators, four were elected by “certificated personnel” (mainly teachers), and three were elected by “noncertificated personnel” (maintenance workers, clerks, teachers’ aides, etc.) Trustee elections were independent of the unions, and any employee could participate, regardless of union membership.
Some of the elected trustees were early outspoken critics of Roberti’s austerity plans and they used their positions as bully pulpits from which to criticize the plans. As employees, they were affected by all the other cuts and changes Roberti proposed to implement. As trustees, they were the first to become alarmed by Roberti’s plan to withhold wipe away a $23 million contribution the school district owed the pension plan in 2003. They alerted retirees to the proposal and loudly opposed the school board’s request that they waive pension contributions from the school district for one year.
Within six months of Roberti’s start, seven of the employee seats on the pension board were vacant. Seven people had had to leave the pension board because Roberti had either eliminated or outsourced their jobs. At a mass meeting at the Glaziers, Architectural Metal & Glass Workers hall on Oct. 29, school district employees discussed attacks that they saw as directed against the independence of the pension board and declared their intention of preserving that independence when they elected new people to fill the vacant positions.
Employees elected more opponents of the Roberti regime to the pension board, but within months many of them also had to resign due to Roberti eliminating their jobs.
That prompted AFT Local 420 Vice President Byron Clemons to observe that repeated lay-offs and elections for the pension board had led to election fatigue in the workforce and a wariness about stepping forward to serve in the position. It also quieted the pension board as a pulpit for advocates of democratic public schools.
The other institution that provided a forum for Roberti’s critics was the school board itself. Although Roberti enjoyed the support of five of the seven school board members, a solid majority, the minority used what ability they had to ask questions at school board meetings and to command public attention as public officials to proclaim some of the community’s objections to efforts to reform the school district along the lines of a Wall Street financial firm.
At a press conference on Jan. 7, 2004, for example, school board member Bill Haas, former school board president Bill Purdy, AFT Local 420 president Mary Armstrong, and Debbie Pfeiffer, mother of a child who had attended Waring School until it was closed, called on legal authorities to investigate the school board’s decision to close Waring School and sell it to St. Louis University. Haas was widely regarded as “a character” by the city’s media and political establishment, which may have helped him attract media attention. A perennial candidate for local office, he was elected to the school board in 1997 on his fourth try for office, and he still yearned to be mayor. Fifty-nine years old in 2004 and single, he once advertised for a rich wife to bankroll one of his political campaigns. A graduate of Harvard and of Yale Law School, he worked part-time at Wal-Mart and taught part-time at Harris-Stowe State College. His political hero was Dennis Kucinich, former mayor of Cleveland and representative to Congress from Ohio. Haas liked to tell stories of the time when, he said, he worked for the Kucinich administration in Cleveland. As a school board member he was identified mainly with mental health and sexuality issues. He talked openly about his own bouts with depression and the two times he had committed himself to a psychiatric hospital, and he urged school-based counseling and support groups for gay and lesbian students as an avenue for reducing teen suicides. He was even more vocal in championing sex education and the distribution of condoms.
Two weeks after his Waring School press conference, Haas and another school board member, Rochell Moore, joined by 92 other people — including several former school board members — and the Parent Assembly of St. Louis Public Schools, followed through on their request for and investigation and formally asked the St. Louis circuit attorney, the Missouri attorney general, and the U.S. attorney for eastern Missouri to investigate the closing and sale of Waring School.
“It would appear to several of us, both current and past St. Louis School Board members, that the closing of a high-performing magnet school, Waring, and its ultimate
sale to SLU where it was the remaining piece needed to build their new arena, especially when the Director of Grand Center, of which SLU is a primary member, sits on the school board, is too much of a coincidence to go unquestioned,” Haas wrote in the request.
“If a high-performing magnet school was closed for other than the best interests of the school district, but rather to benefit a third party directly, and perhaps a board member (employed by an organization of which the third party is a primary member) indirectly, then this would be inappropriate and possibly unlawful. Whether it would constitute just breach of fiduciary duty and breach of the public trust, be a violation of the Desegregation Agreement to which the federal and state governments are parties, or may violate other laws, civil or criminal, we do not know; nor do we have the resources to investigate. We are requesting that your office conduct a thorough investigation by examining all documents, and interviewing all parties involved in the closure and sale of Waring School to St. Louis University,” he added.
Haas added that Roberti had told him that Father Laurence Biondi, president of St. Louis University, had contacted Roberti before the consultants prepared a list of possible school closings in order to say that SLU wanted Waring School. He further claimed that Roberti later gave Biondi the recommendations for school closings before he sent the list to the school board or released it to the public.
In appearances on several radio shows, Haas emphasized that he didn’t know all the facts and that he wanted an investigation to ensure that the deal was fair. No law enforcement officials ever responded to the request.
Board member Vince Schoemehl caustically responded to Haas’s press conference. “One of the big problems with public education is that school boards are filled with people who really want to be in other political offices and see the school board as a stepping stone,” Schoemehl told the Suburban Journals. “This is all a publicity stunt for Bill’s next political venture, whatever that may be.”
Roberti’s response was sharper. He hired a prominent local attorney, Chet Pleban, and filed a defamation suit against Haas in which he sought more than $25,000 in damages.
“I don’t enjoy powerful people threatening me, but I know right from wrong,” Haas told the West End Word. Purdy called the lawsuit “an effort to intimidate Bill Haas . . . and stop a duly elected official asking hard questions.” Post-Dispatch columnist Sylvester Brown Jr., who was consistently more in touch with community feeling than his editors, called the lawsuit symptomatic of the school board majority’s arrogance and “don’t dare question us” attitude.
Even though Haas was one of only two school board members who would openly criticize some of Roberti’s plans and actions, activists did not look on him as a reliable defender of public schools. Too often, he followed up verbal opposition to some proposal with a vote in favor of it. As much as he liked public applause, he also disliked face-to-face conflict. He was well-known for trying to defuse disagreements with humor and for backing down in the face of determined opposition. He often excused his votes for things he had criticized by saying that Roberti deserved support, “because I’m sure he means well.”
Although publicly defiant, the lawsuit shook Haas up. Other school board members decided to increase the pressure. In a closed executive session of the school board, they voted 5-1 on a motion by Hilgemann to refuse to pay for Haas’ legal defense. “My life is a mess and I didn’t really need another stressor and I think I did the right thing and I’ll play the hand I’m dealt,” Haas reportedly told them. Moore abstained from the vote. Afterwards, Haas tended to be even more moderate and more careful in his choice of words when he talked about Roberti and the school board majority.
Moore, activists’ other uncertain ally on the school board, didn’t always get along with Haas. Whereas Haas tended to be more outspoken in front of a crowd and more conciliatory in person, Moore tended towards the reverse. She could be seen as pushy or even aggressive in person, but tended to be more withdrawn at a large public meeting. Unlike Haas, she did not speak like the educated elites who ran the school district, but she could and did reference passages in the Bible as if they spoke directly to whatever issue or discussion was at hand. Moore was rumored to have a history of mental illness, like Haas, and, like Haas, she was widely ridiculed by the mainstream media. The democratic coalition appreciated it when she did speak out in favor of their issues, but generally kept her at arm’s length.
Moore once used biblical language to draw down a curse on the mayor’s head. While the media played up the curse to depict Moore as crazy and discredit the public school system, there were certain segments of the population who identified with her and who saw her as someone who was speaking their language and standing up to a racist white power structure.
Moore’s main issues on the school board were economic opportunities for African-Americans. More than any other school board member, she watched contract numbers and hiring counts to make sure that a fair proportion of jobs were filled by African-Americans and a fair proportion of contracts went to African-American-owned companies, keeping in mind that African-Americans made up roughly 50 percent of the city’s population and 85 percent of the school district’s enrollment. Over the months that Roberti ran the school district, Moore watched uneasily as one black administrator after another was replaced by a white person.
In late January 2004, Moore stood up for one of the few remaining African American executives in the school district. She sent Roberti a letter demanding that he “cease and desist” from all efforts to remove Wayne Fisher as the building commissioner. She pointed out that state law mandated that the St. Louis public school district employ a registered architect or engineer as the commissioner of buildings with responsibility for maintaining and modernizing the district’s facilities. Roberti planned to lay-off Fisher, and did so on January 30, and have the new, white, chief operations officer, Manny Silva, act as building commissioner. Silva lacked the credentials for the job that were specified in state law. Ultimately, the school board majority would deal with that problem by getting the state legislature to remove from the law any requirement for a building commissioner.
In the coming weeks, Moore’s life began to unravel under the pressure to keep quiet. Although Moore became even more critical of the board majority in private meetings and in talking to staff, she also became verbally abusive towards staff that she thought were too cozy with Roberti and the board majority, lashing out at those she though were trying to suppress her. At one meeting she began arguing with Charlene Jones, one of the highest ranking remaining African-American staff members, and then poured a glass of water on her. Jones filed a complaint of assault with the police department and, on March 8, secured an order of protection against Moore effectively barred Moore from the school district headquarters.
“A year ago, she had not done anything violent, nor threatened violence, but now she’s been violent, essentially unprovoked, and threatened more violence,” Haas said of Moore. “She has been in custody of one kind or another 3 to 4 times within the last month, and my understanding is that Barnes Psychiatry had her in custody the weekend before the Charlene Jones incident,” he added.
School board member Hilgemann joined with Jones and eight other employees to file suit to have Moore removed from the school board for “gross misconduct.” The case hinged on Hilgemann’s testimony that Moore had left an angry, threatening message on her home answering machine; and Jones’s testimony about Moore dumping a glass of water on her. Some people in the community tried to rally support for Moore. Ten people even filed suit to remove the five members of the school board majority, but that suit soon was dismissed. Moore tried to set-up a bank account to accept donations to pay for her defense, but the bank closed the account after getting calls from the news media.
Moore naively asked Barnes Hospital to turn her medical records over to the Post-Dispatch, thinking that those records would prove her contention that she was a victim of a plot. The records showed that once when she was admitted to Barnes Hospital she tested positive for cocaine in her blood. She had been sent to the hospital after she collapsed from apparent seizures in the street outside of the school district headquarters. Moore always maintained that she did not take cocaine — and she did not have a reputation for doing drugs — so, she argued, the medical report proved that someone had slipped cocaine into her drink. That explanation struck many people, including the newspaper reporter, as farfetched, and the story about her collapsing outside school district headquarters from a cocaine overdose further sullied her reputation. As a result of all the bad publicity, she was fired from her job as an insurance agent.
In April, the state circuit court issued an order removing Moore from the St. Louis Board of Education. Within six months, she lost her house in a foreclosure action and largely disappeared. She moved from one temporary housing situation to another — occasionally calling me to warn me to watch out for possible plots and to urge me to stay strong — while she struggled to stay off the street and find a minimum of stability in her own life.
Mayor Slay appointed Veronica O’Brien to fill the school board seat that the circuit court had vacated by removing Moore. By surrounding the now-chastened Haas with six of his allies, he and Roberti could hope that they had tamped down any more criticism of their actions from that quarter.
Roberti and the corporate alliance that were trying to re-form the school district seemed to believe in a very authoritarian and hierarchical model. The major theme of the election campaign of their school board slate had been that if they were elected they would suppress dissent. They promised an end to disagreements and noisy debates. They promised to always vote the same way. The Post-Dispatch carried that theme in its coverage of the school district before the election, asserting that debate on the school board were the source of all the shortcomings in city schools that counted and promising that the election of four candidates pledged to always vote together would end the school board “circus.” That authoritarian vision carried over into their vision for the administration of the school system. As Schoemehl explained it to me, the organizational vision of the corporate-dominated school board was that no more than 7-10 people should have access to the superintendent — any more than that and it made it “impossible to manage” — and only one person should have access to the school board: the superintendent. One of his complaints about Hammonds, the previous superintendent, was that too many people had access to him. As for the superintendent, one of the mantras of Schoemehl and his cohorts was that the school board had only one employee, the superintendent, so, there was only one person to report to the school board, the superintendent. Everyone else was employed and reported to the superintendent.
The democratic opposition argued that the rigid hierarchy envisioned by the corporate-dominated school board, to the extent it was implemented, was itself part of the problem. If the school board received its information only from the superintendent, that information was necessarily biased. Board members would have no check on its accuracy. If the superintendent received information from only seven or 10 approved sources, that information was necessarily biased, too. The democratic opposition argued that the school board, the superintendent, and the school district would operate more effectively if parents and teachers had a channel for providing information unfiltered by principals to upper level administrators, the superintendent, or the school board. Teachers had a grievance procedure, but other than the limited time for public comments at monthly school board meetings, parents had nothing. And even the grievance procedure was not necessarily the right avenue for drawing attention to some school shortcomings. The democratic opposition argued that the superintendent and the school board needed to hear from parents and doing so would enhance accountability throughout the district. This wasn’t a universally popular viewpoint. A suburban school principal defended this model at one forum with the charge that letting parents or teachers speak to school board members or anyone above a principal would “undermine the authority of the principal” and destroy the school.
In general, however, the authoritarian model practiced by Roberti was better at intimidating opponents than it was a providing better results for children. The one time Roberti tried to vanquish his critics by demonstrating the effectiveness of his new ways of providing services blew up on him.
By Thanksgiving 2003, and repeated complaints that students lacked textbooks seemed to be getting to Roberti. When Alvarez & Marsal first was hired to operate the school district, the one concrete promise Roberti made was that at least they could make sure that every child had his or her textbooks on the first day of school. When that day arrived, he announced that indeed, every student had all of his or her textbooks. And he kept insisting that every student had all of the textbooks that he or she was supposed to have. Yet, at every school board meeting where the public was allowed to speak, somebody would come up to the microphone and complain about students or classes that lacked textbooks. It was a topic on radio call-in shows and community forums. Roberti kept dismissing any complaints of textbook shortages as false, but they kept coming up, so he decided to prove them false.
Roberti ordered an audit of textbooks in every classroom in the district in order to prove that all students had the required textbooks. The results of the audit, however, were not what he had hoped. The audit showed that the 39,000 students in the school district lacked 11,000 required textbooks. Some classes had only one textbook for everyone in the class to share. In some of those cases, teachers had fastened their single copy to a desk with staples, screws, or glue, so students could share it, but no one could walk off with it. The audit results were embarrassing.
Outsourcing the school district’s book warehouse had been the first act of outsourcing that Roberti committed on the district. Entrusting books and book orders to a modern logistics company with a new, clean, well-lit warehouse with a modern racking system was supposed to solve the perennial problem of efficiently matching textbooks to students when school convened. It didn’t, and Roberti publicly criticized staff for not telling him about it earlier.
Food service followed maintenance out the door to a private company less than two weeks after the board approved outsourcing it in February 2004. Three hundred and forty-two workers lost their jobs with the district when the school board adopted the proposal to outsource food service mid-year. The contract went to Aramark, the same company that funded scholarships for student leaders who called off student protests. Aramark’s local, minority partner in the contract also was a partner of St. Louis American publisher Donald Suggs, the campaign treasurer for the four board members who pushed for outsourcing.
A key step in laying the groundwork for the contract was to quiet Delores Layman, the school district’s long-time director of food and nutrition services. Unlike William Fisher, who quietly followed orders to help Sodexho figure out how it would deliver building maintenance services to the school district when it got the contract to do so, Layman was fighting the outsourcing process. Some of her immediate staff were active in the opposition to Roberti. She funneled information to people she knew in the private food service industry, who acted as surrogates to tell the school board and the news media that in no other school district in the area were meals served for as low a cost per pupil as in St. Louis Public Schools, regardless of whether the district used a private contractor or their own staff, and cited data to back up those statements. In January 2004, Layman sent a letter to school board members laying out the benefits of keeping food service within the district and the drawbacks of outsourcing. One of her central points was that Food and Nurtition Services in St. Louis Public Schools was responsible not just for serving meals, but also for nutrition education throughout the district.
Roberti’s plan was to replace that department with a contractor that would serve meals only. Who, she asked, was going to provide nutrition education and how much would that cost? Shortly after sending that letter, Roberti eliminated her job. Karen Marsal, another partner in Alvarez & Marsal, took over the administration of food and nutrition services while getting it ready for outsourcing.
A second key step in preparing the ground for outsourcing food service was to drive a wedge between the teachers and the food service workers. This step was made easier by the behavior of the SEIU, the union that represented food service workers. The SEIU was alone among the major unions representing school district employees in refusing to even verbally oppose outsourcing, job cuts, or demands for wage concessions. The leaders of the union had made an early, separate deal with Alvarez & Marsal and the school board that imposed outsourcing on building custodians. Now they rebuffed teacher efforts to make common cause and told their own members they approved of outsourcing food service. Politically, the SEIU leadership remained steadfast and publicly prominent in their support for the mayor, the school board majority, and privatization. Meanwhile, Roberti gave teachers something else to think about.
Roberti unveiled a plan to lay-off 300 teachers and eliminate preschool for the following year. Absent any willingness on the part of the SEIU leadership to form a cross-union alliance, the AFT focused on how to respond to the threat to teaching jobs while Roberti pushed through the outsourcing of food service.
Roberti insisted that the decision to outsource food service was “driven by economics.” Although a broad spectrum of people — food service managers, teachers’ union leaders, former superintendents and former school board members — all said that historically food services had made money for the school district, Roberti said they all were wrong. He said they mistakenly thought food service made money because they looked only at monetary costs each year compared to revenues. He said that if they had properly allocated the annual depreciation in the value of cafeteria furniture to the food service budget, they would have seen that food service had not made money in years. Thus, food service lost $2.5 million in 2002-03 after losing $1.44 million in federal revenues and $442,000 in state revenue. Despite such claims, Roberti excluded the costs of replacing cafeteria furniture from Aramark’s contract — those costs remained with the school district. It was a typical Roberti maneuver that muddied comparisons of the cost of in-house services to the costs of outsourcing.
When Aramark’s representatives presented their contract to the school board, however, they noted that they would cost the school district more than the district was paying to operate its own food service program in 2003-04. Their pitch to the district was simple: work with us to increase participation in the federal school lunch program and we will split the additional profits with you.
School board president Darnetta Clinkscale, who said that food service typically had made money each year, stressed the profit goal to a crowd at St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church on December 4, 2003. The reason for outsourcing food services, she said, was to find “a company that can make more money.”
Schoemehl also emphasized that the point of the Aramark contract was not to reduce the cost of providing food service, but rather to increase revenues. Aramark projected a $1.2 million surplus for the school district in fiscal year 2004-05, and a $1.4 million surplus in fiscal year 2005-06, provided that actual costs did not exceed budgeted costs, federal reimbursement rates did not go down, and enrollment did not fall. As it turned out, those surpluses never materialized. Aramark even finished fiscal year 2005-06 with a $700,000 deficit, which the cash-strapped school district had to repay from the 2006-07 general operating budget.
Aramark claimed it could increase the total revenues of the school lunch and breakfast program to $17.2 million a year, an increase of $1.3 million from total revenues of $15.9 million in fiscal year 2002-03. In a presentation to the school board on Feb. 26, 2003, Aramark representative Venita Harrington said the company could increase revenues by getting more high school students to take lunch from their cafeterias. St. Louis Public Schools estimated that 85 percent of its students qualified for free or reduced price lunches under the federal school lunch program. Aramark estimated, however, that only 21 percent of high school students got lunch from school, compared to 90 percent of elementary school students. Aramark claimed it could get the high school rate of participation in the lunch program up to 40 percent through better merchandising and by giving students name brand packaged foods. “We know what students in this area like to eat,” she said. In addition, Aramark would start selling snacks in high school cafeterias after lunch, she said. She predicted that cash sales of snacks would become an important source of revenue. In its contract with the St. Louis Board of Education, Aramark estimated that most of the additional revenue it promised the school district — $1.2 million — would come from those cash sales. In order to further increase revenues, the school board approved the first ever district-wide contract with a soft drink distributor to install coin-operated canned soda pop machines.
Note that both supporters and opponents of outsourcing stressed finances — the cost of the services. No one emphasized nutrition or the need to protect child nutrition from the push for more profits. This was unfortunate as issues of food quality were the issues that grabbed and held the attention of parents and the community. A result of this outsourcing process is that the school district relaxed its nutritional requirements and in the interest of minimizing costs required of Aramark only that its food comply with low U.S. Department of Agriculture guidelines.
To help Aramark reach its profit and revenue goals, the school board gave the private company a couple of distinct advantages over the in-house food service department. In the run-up to outsourcing, food service workers, who were represented by SEIU Local 50, agreed to take significant cuts in wages and benefits in the hopes that the school board would keep them on as school district employees. The school board accepted the cuts and then outsourced their jobs anyway. The combined effects of school closings and employee concessions let Aramark start operations with a 30 percent advantage in wage and benefit costs over what the school district had budgeted for fiscal year 2002-03, an advantage that was equal to nearly $3 million, which was more than the deficit reported for that year. The school board had assessed Food Services for utilities, cleaning, maintenance of cafeteria, and other support totaling about $1 million in 2002-03. Aramark would not pay for those services. Taken together, those changes gave Aramark an almost $4 million cost advantage over the in-house food service department in 2002-03. The school board also agreed to dedicate principals to increasing enrollment in the federal school lunch program. Despite such advantages, Aramark failed to meet its revenue or profit projections.
Schoemehl had argued that the school board should outsource food service regardless of cost, because, “the next superintendent should focus on improving education,” he said, and outsourcing would make that possible. That idea proved to be naive in the extreme.
The contract with Aramark committed St. Louis Public Schools to focus on enrolling children into the federal school lunch program, however, because it committed the district to maintaining or increasing the number of students who qualified for free or reduced lunch, despite the fact that enrollment was falling. As a result, administrators had to pay more attention to food service instead of less. Principals became subject to an autumn audit to determine that they had as many free lunch applications on file as they had students in the school. Principals not only saw to the distribution of applications to the federal lunch program, but they had to follow up with every family that failed to return an application. Whatever reason a family had for not wanting to apply for federal meal assistance, even if it was having too much income to quality, it was the principal’s job to overcome it and get the application for the federal lunch program filed anyway. On Oct. 28, 2004, for example, Manny Silva, then the chief operating officer of St. Louis Public Schools, e-mailed assistant superintendents to ask them to “Please review the attached spreadsheet on outstanding meal applications. In particular [sic] the 30 percent tab which shows those schools which still have 30 percent or more of their meal applications not complete. . . . I will be recommending to the Superintendent that disciplinary action be taken against these principals if this issue is not resolved by November 2nd.”
An unrelenting barrage of complaints from parents about the quality of Aramark food also caused the superintendent and central office administrators to continue to devote time to food service. From the first day of Aramark’s control of food service to the day it expired in July 2008, parents, teachers, and school administrators complained that Aramark’s lunches were heavy on starches and sugars and lacking in fruits and vegetables. Sometimes, the complaints were more acute.
Aramark got off to a rough start in St. Louis Public Schools. Delivery trucks did not always show up at schools with food in time for breakfast or lunch, or brought food principals refused to allow into their schools. One principal was so incensed that the breakfast delivered to his schools was a cardboard box filled with a jumble of unwrapped donuts that he took the box downtown to school district headquarters and delivered it to the chief operating officer’s office. At some schools, parents banded together to buy meals for all students when Aramark failed to deliver food, at others, principals ordered in food from area restaurants and paid for it themselves.
Two weeks after Aramark took charge of school food, a student at Mitchell Elementary School found a worm in his lunch. The following week, 24 students from Lafayette Elementary School were taken to two area hospitals for treatment for possible food poisoning. David Flieg, then the school district’s director of elementary schools, said he inspected the food before it was taken away and “It just didn’t smell exactly right.” Students also reportedly became ill at Woodward, Hamilton, Farragut, and Buder schools. An Aramark spokesman said it could be “the flu” that made students sick. The company later noted that food poisoning never was proven. Nevertheless, on March 31, the principal at Walbridge Elementary School threw out sandwiches made with “spoiled, discolored bologna” before they could be served to students. To the issues of spoiled food and no food, parents added criticism of junk food. By mid-April, there were widespread complaints about lunches that were nothing but snack foods. “Nachos” — tortilla chips and cheese sauce — proved to be a lunch that Aramark liked to serve again and again.
On May 20, 2004, Aramark representatives tacitly admitted to the school district’s Parent Assembly that the company had not been ready to take over food service when it did. The constant refrain to parent criticisms was “It will get better . . . We’re working on it.” Parents complaining about the menu pointed out that there was at least one day every week where the breakfast choices for students consisted of a chocolate covered graham cracker or a donut.
Complaints about bad food, junk food, and food shortages continued as the months and years went by. In February 2006, teachers brought to school board members photos of a tray of moldy apples that they said was put out for students at Gateway High School. Other teachers complained of wormy fruit served at L’Ouverture Middle School. A year later, a local television station “exposed” food safety problems in the school district.
Layman tried to warn the school board in January 2004 that — contrary to the claims of board members Schoemehl and Archibald — the district would still have a responsibility to oversee food service even if the school board outsourced the provision of food service to an outside contractor. The school district’s contract with Aramark recognized that, specifying that the school district would “Retain control of the quality, extent and general nature of the food service.” On paper, the district controlled the quality of food served to students, but it no longer had anyone qualified to do so. Once the contract with Aramark was signed, Roberti and the school board abolished the district’s Food & Nutrition Services department and laid-off the nutritionists and everyone else. That meant complaints would go to the superintendent, who had no effective way to redress them. What supervision the school district did practice placed a higher priority on making money than on improving service or quality. Superintendents could jawbone Aramark or blame the company, but, while someone from the school district looked over the food program’s financials on a monthly, if not daily basis, there was no one in place to similarly monitor the quality and nutritional value of meals served.
In the end, Aramark’s failure to improve the quality of food service despite an ongoing record of problems was very much a failure of privatization and a failure of a school board that believed that private vendors needed no supervision.
Teachers and other school employees were divided over how to respond to Roberti’s proposed cuts. While the SEIU spurned any coalition against privatization, some activists in the teachers’ union still thought that common cause could be made with parents and the community to stop Roberti’s axe from dismembering public education.
Roberti’s plan took direct aim at all the things for which parents had worked for decades to obtain, all the things that black parents had sued the school district to get in the first place. Early childhood education, for example, or preschool, had come to St. Louis as a result of the desegregation lawsuit. Widely considered to be the most significant thing that an urban school district could do to improve the academic performance of poor, minority children, it had been imposed on the school district by court order. Yet, here was Roberti proposing to eliminate it because the state did not fund it. Smaller class sizes, another goal of parents and teachers, also were part of the promise of the desegregation lawsuit settlement. Yet, Roberti demanded that the school district change direction and layoff teachers in order to realize the largest class sizes allowed by law. This seemed to be a clear instance where the aims of teachers and parents were the same.
It was not even as if Roberti’s cuts brought about any real savings or any more spending in the classroom. It was readily apparent that whatever spending Roberti stripped away from classrooms and lower level employees he simply redirected to consultants and to higher executive salaries. In eliminating budges for field trips and after school clubs, for example, he “saved” less money than he then spent on raises for district executives. His own reports showed that he had tripled the amount of spending on outside consultants while doubling and tripling executive salaries. Greater income disparity and profit-taking, that was the business model he was imposing on St. Louis Public Schools.
Mary Armstrong and her leadership team in AFT Local 420, however, opted again to work with Roberti. Instead of fighting against his plans, she chose to cooperate in the reduction of her union’s membership. Separating the issues of class sizes and job security, she proposed an early retirement and buyout plan to induce older teachers to leave the school district and thereby reduce the number of teaching positions without layoffs of newer teachers, never mind that one result would be larger classes and heavier workloads on those who remained behind.
The union leadership was motivated in part by a desire to be perceived as a responsible partner in managing a way through the school district’s financial crisis. Her membership was split on the matter. The debate in Local 420 was whether to throw the financial crisis back on the legislature and fight the school board or accept the crisis as a given and cooperate with the school board. In other words, should they reach out again to parents, other workers, and the community and fight for meeting what they saw as children’s needs or should they work with Roberti and the school board to manage a financial crisis?
Roberti accepted Armstrong’s plan for cutting the number of teachers and other district employees by offering cash payments to entice employees to retire. The onus then fell on Armstrong to get it through her union. He let Armstrong hold a membership meeting at Vashon High School. Instead of paper ballots or even a show of hands, Armstrong called for voting by “dividing the house.” Members in favor of the early retirement plan would go to one side of the gymnasium floor and members opposed to the plan would go to the other side. Armstrong appointed counters. When finished, however, they did not publicly call out their count. Instead, they walked over to Armstrong and caucused with her privately. After several minutes, during when some members left the meeting and others got restive and loudly demanded to know the results, Armstrong announced that the count wasn’t clear and the members had to divide the house again.
After a second count and a quick caucus with the counters, Armstrong announced that the membership of Local 420 approved the early retirement plan by a margin of one vote. Not surprisingly, the chaos of the vote left some members angry and disgusted with their union leadership.
That was the last piece of good news for the business board before Roberti left. Their stated plan to use the year of Roberti to get the district’s financial house in order and find a top-notch superintendent had ended in failure. Roberti left the school district in a deep financial hole — an $87 million deep hole with no foreseeable way of ever climbing out of it — and there was no one waiting in the wings to take his place as superintendent.
From the start of their search process, the business-backed majority of the school board had fixated on Rudy Crew as the one man who could move the district forward in a dramatic fashion. They had pursued him for months and they thought they had them — they even thought they had an agreement on contract terms that would pay him more than twice what the previous certified superintendent made — then came the announcement that Crew was going to Miami for a quarter of a million dollars more than St. Louis had agreed to pay him. In another district, that might not have been a disaster. The business board in St. Louis, however, never had a Plan B. They never talked to anyone but Crew about taking the superintendent’s job in St. Louis. They never searched for anyone other than Crew. They never took applications from anyone but Crew. When he jilted them, they were left high and dry with no one to put in the post.
Despite their private fixation with Crew, the business board had made a big deal publicly about how they were not going to promote from within, but they instead were going to conduct a thorough search for the best available superintendent in the country. Their failure to have a nationally known “reformer” on hand to take the helm of the district when Roberti’s one year contract ended forced the school board to name a placeholder to the post while they launched a new search for a superintendent. Two of the three assistant superintendents during the Roberti year were forced out and the third, Floyd Crues, was promoted to interim superintendent. The school board majority was determined to keep a tight rein on the district, however. Their contract with Crues stipulated that he could not hire anyone without their approval. Some members of the board — Schoemehl was one — even participating on hiring committees interviewing and hiring principals.
Under fire for their botched superintendent search, the corporate-backed school board strove to retake the initiative and turned again to the Broad Foundation for help. Through their Broad connections they came up with someone to take the job of chief academic officer shortly after the company of Alvarez & Marsal left the district. This new “reform” czar would effectively manage the school district behind the back of the interim superintendent and ensure that their plan for academic reform moved forward.
to be continued