Board Games

New city school-board president, once a critic of the status quo, launches an investigation of two reformers

All is not well with the St. Louis Board of Education, and that's not altogether a bad thing. Comfort isn't a luxury this board can afford, what with the distressed district's list of woes.

Rochell Moore and Amy Hilgemann knew they weren't volunteering for light duty when they campaigned for no-pay, high-risk jobs on the school board. When they won on the basis of promises of reform, they joined a board that included Harold Brewster, a member since '97 who had been known to take shots at the district's status quo. In a May 23 memo to Superintendent Cleveland Hammonds Jr., Brewster referred to Hammonds' "ineptness" in dealing with the board in the matter of air-conditioning city schools.

That memo was too critical of Hammonds for Bill Haas, who in June refused to vote for Brewster for board president, saying he was too harsh on the super. Brewster failed to win the presidency on two ballots that night, and some surmise he was pissed that Moore, Hilgemann and Haas didn't back him. Hilgemann was nominated on the second ballot but failed to win. At the July 10 meeting, to the befuddlement of many, Hammonds spoke glowingly of Brewster and, in another turnabout, former opponent Bill Purdy nominated Brewster, who won by acclamation.

Since that vote, Brewster has not shown much love, or respect, for Hilgemann and Moore, the board's dynamic duo of reformers. "He's not recognizing us at meetings, he's not returning our phone calls, he's not allowing us to put items on the agenda and he's having us investigated," Moore says. My, how Harold has changed.

The charge of being "investigated" refers to an apparent request by Brewster for the board's attorney, Ken Brostron, to look into any possible violations of policy or law Hilgemann or Moore may have committed when they were meeting with school-district employees about the budget. "I have no comment on that," says Brewster. "I have no comment on it." Brostron also declined to comment on any request by Brewster for an investigation. But Hilgemann and Moore are talking.

"Brewster was trying to imply that we had unlawful meetings, that we were using our authority as board members to intimidate people to give us information or wasting people's time in meetings," says Moore. "That's not what occurred at all. We worked in concert with people. We asked questions. We worked with the superintendent; he set up some of the meetings."

Hilgemann is annoyed at Brewster's tactics and describes his recent behavior as "not very stable."

"It's so petty," Hilgemann says. "We used to talk to Harold all the time when we were working on the budget, so he knew exactly what we were doing. He told Brostron that there were all these rumors we were holding secret meetings with staff. No. 1, you don't have an investigation based on rumors, and No. 2, he knew that wasn't true."

Whatever Brewster's motivation, Hilgemann believes what he's doing is a violation of state statute. "He cannot prohibit us from doing our job, and that's what he's trying to do," she says.

The most blatant bludgeonwielded by new president Brewster and his backers from the old guard was their refusal to allow Hilgemann and Moore to present their budget recommendations. The two had prepared a PowerPoint presentation and a 47-page report, "2001 Budget Recommendations." Brewster, ex-president Marlene Davis, Purdy and Paulette McKinney all voted to limit discussion to five minutes per board member, thereby preventing the presentation. "People in town don't realize what a kangaroo court the Board of Ed is," says one veteran school-board observer. "It's embarrassing. They could have allowed Amy and Rochelle to give their presentation and then steamrolled over them, but they wouldn't even let them do that."

Speculation is that Brewster was promised funding for an auditorium at his alma mater, the new Vashon High School, and given two other budget items he wanted, including an expansion of individual auditing. Brewster denies selling out to the district administration in exchange for anything.

"I didn't make any commitments to anybody -- nobody," he says. "I told them right then and there at the meeting, 'This doesn't commit me to anybody. If you want to take your votes back, take them back now, because I'm not for sale. I'm my own person.'"

Maybe so, but Brewster the outsider became Brewster the insider pretty quickly.

A July 18 memo by Hammonds to board members, advising them to direct all requests to staff and employees through Hammonds, makes perfect sense to Brewster. "No board member can just go around talking to staff and get information. That's very disruptive; that's why you have the policy," he says. "They call that micromanaging when you're trying to manage staff. You just don't do that."

Moore sees Brewster's directives as a clampdown that blocks legitimate efforts at reform. "He's being ill advised. He's not working with us; he's doing things to hinder us," she says. "He's trying to lock us out and obstruct us from serving as board members. It's a power play."

Moore was recently critical of Hammonds' acceptance of a trip to Cancun that was paid for by Maritz Inc., the motivational company that had donated free trips to principals of schools where attendance had increased. The trouble is, overall attendance was down slightly in the provisionally accredited district. But because there are far bigger fish to fry in the St. Louis Public Schools, Short Cuts thinks the trip was no big gig. The superintendent of the largest school district in the state deserves a little R&R, particularly if some suburban corporation is paying the freight.

As for the charges of vengeance, Brewster expresses bafflement that anyone would believe he wants to get even with Hilgemann and Moore for not voting for him in June. If Haas, Moore and Hilgemann had voted for Brewster in June as they did in July, Brewster asks, "What else would be different? I'd be president. I am president. And they did vote for me. So how could there be controversy?

"When I showed up at the July meeting, I had no idea what would happen," he says. "It was a blessing and a surprise. I had no idea how people would vote."

Moore and Hilgemann aren't buying that bill of goods. For Purdy, who ran against him in June, to nominate Brewster, and for Hammonds, a previous Brewster target, to speak well of him -- well, something went down.

Haas, who doesn't always agree with Hilgemann and Moore, still thinks they ought to be given a chance to express their views. He says a "board war" would prove a distraction from the district's real problems and notes that Brewster is off to a "rocky start."

"For four years, he wasn't afraid to stand up to the administration, and now he shuts people out, the same way he hated being shut out," Haas says. "He does better from the end of the table. It's a different dynamic from the head of the table. We need to give him a fair chance to grow into a president who makes the board feel included and looks for common ground, a president who has the independence to vote where he thinks wisdom is, instead of just with the other three and whatever the administration wants."

Brewster admits that his role has changed.

"The roles are completely different, by definition of the role. When you move into the governance position of any board, you're restricted, as far as debate is concerned, and you become a facilitator. It's a different role," he says. "My views haven't changed on anything. My approach has changed because of the position that I hold."

Still, those wanting an urgent approach to change regret that Brewster's being president thus far doesn't seem much different than Marlene Davis' being president. From the looks of it, questions about whether Hammonds should continue being superintendent, fundamentally new approaches to budgeting and an effort "to think outside the box" for solutions have been tabled.

But the obstacles put in the path of Hilgemann and Moore don't appear to have them discouraged.

"Heck no," Hilgemann says. "This is fuel. It'll make us fight harder."

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