Board Games

New school-board members Amy Hilgemann and Rochell Moore wanted to improve public education in St. Louis but ended up suing the district. The gridlock continues, but the schools remain the same.

 On the bench, the often imperious St. Louis Circuit Judge Robert H. Dierker Jr. presides, paging through legal documents and appearing uninterested as the two lawyers standing before him trade shots over motions to quash and writs of mandamus. Then Dierker lightens up, smiles and looks at the two bickering barristers, asking rhetorically, "Do you want to mediate this?" He is referring to the lawsuit filed by two St. Louis Board of Education members against the district and the board president. "Who would be the ombudsman for the school board?" Dierker asks, clearly amused by the proposition. "I can't imagine who I would appoint, and God knows nobody would volunteer."

The judicial humor is telling. Dierker, the lawyers and anyone within earshot during this preliminary hearing in the downtown Civil Courts Building know that the school district has borne a bull's-eye on its back for decades. The "provisionally accredited" district is the target of reasoned criticism based on its performance, and it's the target of malicious criticism based on racism, ignorance and fear. When the two camps end up humming the same tune, it's time to worry. And yes, despite the district's having come out of the nation's most costly desegregation lawsuit two years ago, after 27 years in which the fate of the district has been a federal case, there's still plenty to worry about with city schools.

Jennifer Silverberg
School-board President Harold Brewster claims there are no "hard feelings" between him and the new board members.
Jennifer Silverberg
School-board President Harold Brewster claims there are no "hard feelings" between him and the new board members.

The most recent brushfire is the suit before Dierker, with the trial set to start Monday. Board President Harold Brewster, miffed at new board members Amy Hilgemann and Rochell Moore for their brash actions early in their tenure, had the board's attorney "investigate" to determine whether the two women had exceeded their roles when they conducted their own research into the district's woes. The duo asked for the findings of the investigation, but Brewster refused to turn them over. The suit is an effort both to discover the nature of the investigation and to determine whether a board president can order such action.

Beyond this current suit, there are rumblings that the four-person majority of the board is so put out by the incessant questioning of board actions by Hilgemann and Moore that recall or removal of the two new members could be an eventual goal. The flip side of that rumor is that Hilgemann and Moore wouldn't mind if Brewster were removed from the board presidency or Superintendent Cleveland Hammonds quit, fed up by the infighting.

Even as both sides in this board war use a scorched-earth strategy, many of the district's schools continue to burn on their own. After the desegregation settlement in 1999, then-Missouri commissioner of education Robert Bartman asked that the district be stripped of its accreditation, but the state Board of Education never acted on that recommendation because the district had brokered a two-year reprieve from losing accreditation as part of the settlement deal. So the district is provisionally accredited, the academic equivalent of being on probation.

As board members mud-wrestle over control of the board, teachers such as Richard Bates, a faculty member at Northwest Middle School on Riverview Boulevard, have a more immediate and real concern: control of the classroom. They get no respect from some students, and they get little help from the administration in dealing with those students. "I've been called 'motherfucker' so many times -- you write it up, you request to see parents, but they have so much damn red tape," says Bates, who is also vice president of the St. Louis Teachers Union. "I'm telling you, there are kids walking around in my middle school who are chronically disruptive every single day. I'm talking about running the damn halls all day ... So you got kids pissing in the hall on one side over here, you got kids smoking reefer. There's all kinds of mess going on."

If there were any doubts that Hilgemann and Moore would hit the ground running -- and knock things over -- they were erased at the pair's first board meeting, April 10, in the Carr Lane Visual and Performing Arts Middle School auditorium. At that meeting, Hilgemann asked to see samples of the $1.5 million worth of new health books the district was buying, because the city schools had not taught health in 12 years. When Hammonds attempted to explain why that might be difficult, Hilgemann advised the superintendent, "I don't work for you, you work for me." The hissing of Hilgemann by the staff in attendance had already started.

"What was the big deal? School boards look at books all the time," Hilgemann recalls. "We were supposed to sit there and say, 'I agree with the consent agenda,' like they all do. All Hammonds wants is a rubber stamp."

From that moment on, the board meetings wouldn't be the same. In addition to the friction with Hammonds, an adversarial relationship developed between Hilgemann and Moore and Marlene Davis, who was board president at the time. Previously, the effect of two new board members, however zealous they might be, would have been diluted by the mix of a 12-member board. But Hilgemann and Moore were new to the game, had unseated two veteran incumbents and were displaying a sense that the district was in a state of emergency.

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