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?

What the school board wants to do is turn around a district that has deep-seated difficulties. Its students are poor, its test scores are below average and its image in the general community is even worse than its reality.

The skimming off of the middle class has been going on for decades. African-American parents worried about the quality of city public schools or concerned about safety can opt to send their children to county schools. Estimates during the '90s were that 60 percent of the city's school-age white children attended private parochial schools.

More than 80 percent of the students in the city public schools qualify for the free or reduced lunch program offered by the federal government. The state average is 38 percent.

Radio talker Lizz Brown has used her show on WGNU (920 AM) to criticize the school board. She also went to court.
Jennifer Silverberg
Radio talker Lizz Brown has used her show on WGNU (920 AM) to criticize the school board. She also went to court.
Superintendent Cleveland Hammonds stepped down a year before his contract expired -- then all hell broke loose.
Jennifer Silverberg
Superintendent Cleveland Hammonds stepped down a year before his contract expired -- then all hell broke loose.

The district's Missouri Assessment Program (MAP) test scores have improved in the elementary and middle school areas in the past four years, but are still below state averages. In high schools, MAP scores have gotten worse during the same span, with only 1.2 percent of juniors and seniors scoring in the advanced or proficient levels for science.

The drop-out rate has fallen to 7.8 percent, down from 26 percent when Hammonds became superintendent in 1996. During the same span, the graduation rate rose to 53.3 percent from 38.6 percent, but that still is well below the statewide rate of 80 percent. The attendance rate for the district of 89.5 percent is less than the state average of 93.8 percent.

Critics often talk about the district's top-heavy administration, but that's a charge that's hard to quantify. According to statistics kept by the state, the district ratio of 219 students for each administrator is comparable to the statewide ratio of 209 students for each administrator.

The mobility rate for students, which is the number of students who transfer in or out divided by attendance, was 133 percent in the city in 2002. In Clayton it was 14 percent; in Rockwoods it was 9 percent.

Other cities faced with similar dreary public school scenarios have seen their mayors take over the schools with state legislative support. Due to the settlement of the desegregation case, Slay instead had the option of letting a new school board do the work. Tapping Schoemehl was a mini-coup: the former mayor increased the notoriety of the slate and put somebody in the mix accustomed to public controversy. And Schoemehl has a record of turning to the private sector for answers to vexing public-service problems: It was during his tenure that St. Louis got out of the business of operating public hospitals and instead contracted with a private-management firm to operate Regional Medical Center. The move cut hundreds of jobs from the city payroll. Ultimately, Regional closed in 1997.

After Schoemehl's unsuccessful bid for governor in 1992, he returned to the business world before taking the top job at Grand Center. Last year, Schoemehl began thinking about running for the unpaid post on the school board. He crammed for the job by reading Henig's book as well as City Schools and City Politics co-authored by Lana Stein, the chair of political science at University of Missouri-St. Louis, and Building Civic Capacity edited by Clarence Stone.

A veteran of city politics, Schoemehl is not surprised by the vocal protests during board meetings and the unrelenting criticism of the new board from some circles.

"There's going to be plenty of grief about this," Schoemehl says. "What has ever changed that hasn't caused grief? I would be disappointed if in a year from now we didn't look back on this and say, 'We made a good decision. We've increased the capacity of this school system to provide educational services to children.' It's not just about savings, it's about redeployment and adding quality."

The ex-mayor insists that a for-profit, private firm has to be worth the $4.8 million it will be paid to restructure a district that's so deeply in the red. After all, Alvarez & Marsal is in the business of saving its clients money.

"In the private sector, they wouldn't exist if they didn't. That's my point. These people make a lot of money," Schoemehl says. "The private sector is unforgiving in these sorts of situations."

The private sector may be unforgiving, but at least it's private, a realm where Roberti is comfortable. Dealing with the media has been a big adjustment for him since becoming the district's interim superintendent.

"If there was one big surprise to this whole situation, it's how much time we spend doing this," Roberti says during an interview. "Quite honestly, that takes away from it." It's not that Roberti isn't gabby or glib on his feet -- he is. It's just that in other venues it's not a priority, or even necessary.

The firm's co-founder Bryan Marsal is running troubled HealthSouth Corporation and is often quoted in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times, but that's the exception.

"We're not used to dealing with all this press," Roberti says. "When we go in to fix a company, we're not used to this whole PR thing. Normally we go in, we do our work and yes, people are interested.... but it's not constant."

"When you're in the public eye like this, it's constant," Roberti says. "It's constant."

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