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?

Roberti carries himself like a man used to being in charge, walking briskly, dressing well but conservatively. The 56-year-old has a master's degree in business administration from Southern Methodist University and an undergraduate degree from Sacred Heart University, where he is on the board of trustees and is a "professor of retailing." He's Catholic to the max, having recently returned from a vacation in Rome where he toured churches.

Roberti hasn't talked about his politics, but he has a history of making donations to conservative Republican candidates. In 1995, he gave $1,000 to Lamar Alexander, a former U.S. Secretary of Education and Tennessee governor, who was trying at the time to win the Republican nomination for president. That same year Roberti gave $6,000 to Steve Forbes, son of the business-magazine magnate who was running for president. One Democrat Roberti did assist was the late U.S. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-New York), who received $1,000 in 1994.

Though he has spent recent weekends in St. Louis, the contract with the district allows Alvarez & Marsal $110,000 for travel expenses. That money can be used by Roberti for trips back to his Connecticut home on weekends.

Former mayor Vincent Schoemehl expected a lot of grief. And he got it.
Jennifer Silverberg
Former mayor Vincent Schoemehl expected a lot of grief. And he got it.
Rudy Crew is Alvarez & Marsal's "go to" guy on educational questions. He's a long-distance call or airplane ride away.
Jennifer Silverberg
Rudy Crew is Alvarez & Marsal's "go to" guy on educational questions. He's a long-distance call or airplane ride away.

Roberti may feel as though he's in the media's spotlight, but for the most part, the media have embraced the newcomer. The St. Louis American, a local weekly with the highest circulation in the African-American community, has embraced the school board's actions -- no surprise, given that the newspaper's publisher Donald Suggs was campaign treasurer for the winning candidates and also served on the committee that recommended Alvarez & Marsal.

The Post-Dispatch editorial page has been behind the board's decision from the beginning, and its news pages haven't been unfriendly to the new management team, tending to downplay or even ignore public opposition. For example, the Post barely mentioned the raucous school board meeting on June 10 that was packed with 500 people and at times seemed to edge out of control. Nor did the Post report on an education coalition meeting on June 21 at Harris-Stowe State College that featured, among other highlights, a shouting match between Suggs and school-board member Rochell Moore. That Saturday morning meeting apparently was scheduled too early for local television news crews, too. The paper also failed to cover the pension-fund meeting on June 30.

From Roberti's perspective, there isn't much new or different in what he's doing. Revamping a school district shouldn't be all that different from restructuring a company:

"It is ordinary business as far as I'm concerned," Roberti says. "We've got logistic problems, we've got distribution problems, we've got organizational problems, we've got systemic problems, we've got finance problems. Those are the things that I know how to do well and I've been doing them well for a very long time. Whether I was a CEO of a clothing company or a manufacturing company, or whatever, I've always been a problem solver."

Rudy Crew, his sidekick in the endeavor, previously headed school districts in Tacoma, Washington; Sacramento, California; and New York City. Crew now lives in the Bay Area of California where he works for the Stupski Foundation of San Francisco. He won't be in St. Louis that often, but Roberti emphasizes that Crew will be consulted on how decisions affect education.

Crew doesn't see what Alvarez & Marsal is attempting to do as that hard to grasp. "Everything we need to do to improve this system is in the realm of the known," Crew says. "There is nothing unknown about this. We know there have to be some improved business practices, we know there have to be some improved instructional practices, but we know what it takes to be able to do this. It's just a question of actually creating the organization that takes advantage of what we know. I don't think this is a question of having to change the entire governance structure, but I do think you have to change the organizational structure."

And Crew, having left New York City after fighting Mayor Rudy Giuliani over the mayor's support of vouchers, knows the tricky part often is after the dust settles.

"Where urban public schools usually lose, is that the reform that they went through is so politically costly, it's hard to sustain the leadership to keep it going," Crew says. "If you look at public school systems en masse, what you find is sustaining the change over a long period of time becomes incredibly hard to do."

Crew's presence is critical for Roberti because as an African-American former head of the nation's largest urban school district, Crew provides educational credibility even though he's a long-distance phone call or airplane ride away.

Even when Roberti and Tony Alvarez made their initial pitch on May 21 to a school board selection committee, they admitted repeatedly that they knew little about education. "What experience do we have with teachers and principals? Zero," Alvarez told the committee. "What experience do we have in private industry? A lot."

Neither Alvarez nor Roberti tried to hide that revamping the district would mean people losing their jobs. That's how money is saved. Squeezing money out of the budget would mean fewer people working for the district.

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