Demolition Man

To save St. Louis public schools, Bill Roberti and his band of hired guns plan to blow things up. Who'll pick up the pieces when they're gone?

 Editor's note: A correction ran concerning this story; see end of article.

Bill Roberti wants to know what would happen to the city's Public School Retirement Fund if hundreds of eligible teachers decided, all at once, to retire early. So the new interim superintendent of St. Louis Public Schools sends an emissary to confer with pension-board trustees.

The meeting, which Roberti skips, does not go well.

Bill Roberti: "I am going to restructure this entire system."
Jennifer Silverberg
Bill Roberti: "I am going to restructure this entire system."
School-board member Bill Haas (left) has referred to new board members, like Bob Archibald (right), as "Nazis."
Jennifer Silverberg
School-board member Bill Haas (left) has referred to new board members, like Bob Archibald (right), as "Nazis."

"This is like Napoleon calling up the Queen and saying, 'I need to talk to your chancellor of the exchequer and get all your information,'" grouses trustee John Patrick Mahoney, a former school board member.

In appearance, Roberti may resemble a certain dead French emperor, but the interim superintendent's intentions at the June 30 meeting are far from Napoleonic. Roberti is simply looking to employ a routine corporate cost-cutting maneuver: Reduce the workforce by getting employees to retire early.

It's a maneuver that would seem to make sense given that the schools are awash in red ink, but Mahoney isn't buying. He's seen "sly attempts" to dip into the $900 million pension pot before. He's suspicious of talk about the looming deficit -- one that mysteriously swelled from $55 million in May to $91 million in June. And he's concerned about an atmosphere of crisis, fueled by apocalyptic and often wildly inaccurate information, that's clouded discussion of school reform. "This whirlwind of activity that Mr. Roberti is leading is a trail of uncertainty and fear," Mahoney complains. "We should be sitting down with Mr. Roberti face-to-face and talking about where did you get the $91 million deficit?"

Mahoney isn't the only one with his antennae up. Marlene Davis, pension-board chairwoman and a former school-board president, is openly skeptical. Roberti's talk of closing schools and selling real estate to cover the deficit, she worries, will come back to haunt the city -- especially when suburban school districts opt out of the desegregation plan. "We must look to the future," Davis warns. "We've got 13,000 kids coming back from St. Louis County: The county schools are not going to hold our burdens for us forever."

Memo from Marlene Davis to Bill Roberti: "We can't tear down everything."

Brooks Brothers was never like this. Neither were Plaid Clothing Group, Duck Head Apparel or Tropical Sportswear International -- all clothing companies where William V. Roberti was top dog.

No noisy protesters crowded the board meeting when Roberti pushed Brooks Brothers to expand its line of women's clothing. Nobody ever sued Duck Head, claiming that Roberti was unqualified to run the company.

What has Roberti gotten himself into by becoming interim superintendent? For sailing into uncharted waters, he's getting a lot of grief and a big paycheck.

Roberti is a managing director at Alvarez & Marsal, a New York City-based company that offers, according to its sales pitch, "specialized operational and financial services to underperforming and over-leveraged companies." The twenty-year-old firm never has worked with a public school system, even though the terms "underperforming" and "over-leveraged" fit most urban public school districts.

In May, four newly elected school board members and board member Amy Hilgemann voted to hire Alvarez & Marsal to restructure the district's business and financial systems over the next thirteen months. Their goal: Make the district more efficient, save money and hopefully redirect those savings to boost academic performance somewhere down the road. For its services, Alvarez & Marsal could collect as much as $4.8 million. Roberti is a consultant on the clock, and gets up to $675 an hour.

As part of the deal, Roberti was named the district's "chief restructuring officer," a stealth title for superintendent, succeeding Cleveland Hammonds, who retired on June 30. Roberti's eight-person team includes Rudy Crew, former chancellor of New York City schools. Crew serves as Roberti's go-to guy on academic matters; his "educational advisor." Crew, who won't be in St. Louis that often, will be paid up to $350 per hour.

Aside from Crew, Roberti freely that admits he and his team have no experience or credentials that would qualify them to operate schools. Few, if any, of the ideas that Roberti proposes are new; almost all of them have been tried in piecemeal fashion in other major urban school districts to different degrees and in varying ways. Other districts have privatized departments and outsourced custodial, maintenance or food service. Some districts have closed schools and sold off real estate to save money.

What is different in St. Louis is that a new school-board majority, dominated by members backed by Mayor Francis Slay, moved with great haste in ceding operational control to outside consultants. Within a month of being elected, Slay's slate -- Darnetta Clinkscale, Ron Jackson, Robert Archibald and Vincent Schoemehl -- engineered the hiring of a private firm to virtually take over the district for a year. Hilgemann, elected to the board as a reformer in 2001, joined in the decision; board members Rochell Moore and Bill Haas did not.

The justification given for the precipitous move is that city schools are in crisis and in danger of losing their provisional state accreditation next year. A loss of accreditation would be another blow to the city's efforts to revive its dying neighborhoods, forcing families with school-age children to turn to private schools or suburban districts.

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