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?

Everybody in St. Louis understands the consequences, but when the mayor's four candidates campaigned on a school-reform platform, they never told voters they'd turn the job over to outside consultants. And they never said they'd exclude key constituencies involved with public education -- such as teacher, district employee and parent groups -- from the decision-making.

No one argues that the district is perfect, but the expense of the contract and the vagueness of its goals have triggered a louder, more immediate outcry than the usual general anxiety about the schools. Opponents have filed a lawsuit, lobbied Jefferson City and staged public protests in an effort to void the contract with Alvarez & Marsal and send Roberti packing. During the board meeting on June 10, audience members chanted "no justice, no peace" and school security personnel were stationed by the podium and in the side aisles. The guerrilla war against the corporate takeover of the district started weeks ago and shows no signs of letting up.

If the critics were just the usual entrenched constituencies, it might not matter. But education experts, familiar with dozens of experiments in public school reform, say what's being tried in St. Louis is a high-risk gamble that could not only prove ineffective, but could do long-lasting damage to the city school system. "I don't think [that] slash-and-burn and then rebuild is the right way to go," says Jeff Henig, professor of education at Teachers College at Columbia University and author of The Color of School Reform, a highly regarded analysis of educational reform efforts.

Amy Hilgemann used to be a minority voice on the school board. That changed in May.
Jennifer Silverberg
Amy Hilgemann used to be a minority voice on the school board. That changed in May.
Ron Jackson went from education chairman of the Black Leadership Roundtable to school-board vice president.
Jennifer Silverberg
Ron Jackson went from education chairman of the Black Leadership Roundtable to school-board vice president.

Amy Stuart Wells, author of Stepping Over the Color Line, a comprehensive look at the St. Louis school desegregation case, agrees. "To have someone come in, tear it apart, and then bring in a leader [a permanent superintendent] is just stupid," Wells says. "Whoever is going to lead this system into the future needs to be part of these decisions about what gets cut, what doesn't and why. Even the private sector should know that."

None of the criticism fazes Roberti, a self-described "problem solver." He's used to walking into places where some of the people hate seeing him and others hold out hope. And he has no illusions about the complexity of the job: "We know we have a tough assignment on our hands."

But it's an assignment with limited responsibility: Roberti and his band of hired guns will be gone by next June -- if not earlier. And they won't have to live with the consequences of their actions.


That such a drastic and unprecedented approach to reform is underway is a testament to the school district's troubled history. At its peak in 1967, the school district served 115,543 students. Today, enrollment is just 42,036 -- an astounding 64 percent drop. The decrease can't be blamed entirely on the exodus of city residents to the suburbs -- the city's population dropped by less than one-half during the same period. Race played a major role and continues to do so.

Indeed, the school board makeover that brought Alvarez & Marsal to St. Louis has its roots in the landmark desegregation suit filed in 1972, when Minnie Liddell went to federal court claiming her son was receiving an inadequate education because he was African-American. That led to the nation's most expensive school desegregation plan, a large component of which was a court-sanctioned, state-subsidized voluntary transfer program started in 1983 that allowed black city students to attend St. Louis County schools.

Missouri attorneys general, from John Ashcroft through Jay Nixon, sued to end the desegregation plans in Kansas City and St. Louis, trying to get the state out from under millions in payments each year. It wasn't until 1999, through a combination of a city-passed sales tax, state legislation and the agreement of the plaintiffs, that the desegregation suit was settled.

As part of the deal, more than 10,000 African-American city students continue to attend school in the county, though that could end in the next few years if the suburban districts drop out of the program. During the negotiations that led to Senate Bill 781 that settled the suit, critics of city schools who demanded reform pushed for language that cut the size of the 12-member board by five. The legislation put four of the remaining seven seats on the April 2003 ballot.

As that election approached, an education coalition was formed to pick a slate of candidates for the four open seats. Slay swung into action. The mayor, his chief of staff Jeff Rainford, and his educational liaisons Robbyn Wahby and Reverend Earl Nance helped screen prospective candidates. They settled on Schoemehl, a former city mayor and current president of Grand Center Inc.; Clinkscale, patient-care director at Barnes Jewish Hospital; Jackson of the Black Leadership Roundtable; and Archibald, director of the Missouri Historical Society.

Slay loaned $50,000 from his campaign fund to support the slate. Major area corporations kicked in with Anheuser-Busch, Ameren and Emerson Electric each giving $20,000. Energizer Eveready Battery Company gave $15,000. The coalition raised more than $235,000.

Though the slate, which handily beat fourteen other candidates, was midwifed by City Hall, Slay's top aide insists the school board isn't taking direction from the mayor. "Anybody who says otherwise is full of baloney," Rainford says. At the same time, Rainford applauds the board's decision to hire Alvarez & Marsal. "When one person comes in without any kind of support, change just doesn't happen. One person against the system is a mismatch. So the board made the decision that rather than bringing one person in, we're going to bring a team in because it would take forever for one person to do it and we don't have forever."

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