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?

During his pitch Alvarez said it had been his experience that "most companies have 10 to 20 percent of people not performing good work," but admitted they would have a "difficult time coming up with yardsticks. When we come in, we don't have that data." Roberti told the committee there would be "head count reductions" as they would "knock out redundant activities."

One non-school board member of the selection committee, J. Patrick Mulcahy of Energizer Holdings Inc., worried about how these actions would be greeted by the public. "You have a community issue," said Mulcahy. "How do you sell this? How do you make it sing?"

One argument was that the study eventually would pay for itself. Alvarez said he would be "stunned" if the savings from the restructuring didn't exceed 10 percent of the district's $450 million budget. And if the situation got ugly, Alvarez recommended doing what private industry does: hire a "crisis PR firm" to handle the uproar.

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."

Once the downsizing, privatization and new systems were in place, Alvarez & Marsal would split.

"When you get the new superintendent, we can get out of the way," said Roberti. "We're happy to leave Dodge. We're gone."

That sort of rip-and-run, fix it and exit technique worries Jeff Henig, the Columbia University professor.

"When you just rip things up before you understand why they are the way they are, you're often ripping healthy plans along with the bad ones," Henig says. "Sometimes things are the way they are for reasons of inertia and political privilege and protection of patronage and all kinds of bad reasons. But other times things are the way they are because communities by experiment, history and evolution find solutions that work."

Changing a school district involves getting the people who do its work to buy into the concept.

"You need to begin doing it in a way that enlists support of key groups within the community rather than imagine that it can be done by these folks who just got into town," Henig says. "It's not clear that the wounds and the messiness go away when they leave town. The supposition is you go through this tough period and then you're over the hump. I'm not certain it's as clean as that, that the wounds don't remain, that the resentments don't remain and continue to fester."

If the recent school board meetings and public meetings are any indication, the "tough period" is in full swing. At first opponents might have been dismissed as fringe dwellers and the usual malcontents, but as the spin from Roberti, the school board and the mayor's office escalates about how grim the district's finances are and how drastic the remedy must be, the opposition ranks grow.

Clearly Roberti did not know what he was facing. For example, he claims he wasn't aware until June 22 that Rochell Moore had recently been treated for mental illness and had tested positive for cocaine. Moore faxed her medical records to the Post-Dispatch thinking that if the newspaper had those documents, her allegations that she had been set up would be made public. Predictably, the May 6 article on her involuntary commitment at Barnes-Jewish Hospital did not improve her status on the board.

On May 31, the day Alvarez & Marsal was hired, Moore stood outside district headquarters handing out a news release stating her opposition. She also told reporters she would never go to lunch with Amy Hilgemann again and that she "would watch where she put her coffee." Moore has had a falling out with Hilgemann, her former confidante and ally, and has alleged that someone put something that made her ill, possibly cocaine, in her coffee.

Though his rhetoric pales by comparison to Moore's, the board's other dissident, Bill Haas, has referred to the board majority as "Nazis" and calls their actions "dysfunctional, unlawful, self-righteous, sanctimonious, hypocritical and self-serving." He's less vitriolic when it comes to Roberti and his staff, saying "they may end up being worth every dollar we're going to overpay them."

For most of those opposed to the hiring of Alvarez & Marsal, the money is the issue: The firm cost too much and its compensation is not linked to any academic improvement. From the start, Lizz Brown's morning talk show on WGNU (920 AM), recently expanded to four hours, has provided a constant drumbeat against the board's action. Brown's been more than a vocal partisan in the debate: She recently filed a lawsuit with six other plaintiffs seeking to block Roberti's appointment and void the Alvarez & Marsal contract. A hearing in circuit court is scheduled for July 21.

"What is so twisted and wicked about the argument is no one can argue that the city schools are so bad it doesn't matter what we do," Brown says. "But yet and still that's the argument that is being made here, that it doesn't matter what we do, just do something. That's bull."

Brown reserves special criticism for the Black Leadership Roundtable, the African-American organization that threw its support behind the school-board takeover. Key roundtable members include Jackson, now the school-board vice president, and publisher Suggs. Brown contends the group's out of touch with the African-American community. "No one in that group was elected, no one was chosen by the community," Brown says. "These are largely black businesspeople who are getting a hustle from the deals that they cut as being the gateway to black people."

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