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?

Taking over the schools doesn't seem like something Slay wants to do -- for now. His strategy is deft but political, allowing him to look supportive of change yet still remain an arm's length away if the situation implodes. When Slay issues a statement saying the school administrators spent money "like drunken sailors," that's a popular statement with his political base who either never sent their children to public schools or abandoned those schools long ago. That Slay presides over a city budget that's more than $50 million in the red is beside that point.

Rainford says Slay's decision not to seek direct control of the schools was an "operational" decision, not a political one. "We've got our hands full taming our own bureaucracy. We're still focused there. We have to improve the delivery of city services and bring investment back into the city. That is a full time gig," Rainford says. But he admits taking the schools over remains an option. "This is the last, best chance in the current structure to improve the schools. The mayor has never ruled it out in the future. It's certainly something his constituents have asked him to do or have pushed him to do. At this point, he still thinks the current process holds out some hope."

But Slay's staff doesn't know the city schools like Amy Stuart Wells, the author and professor -- and Wells says she has no reason to be hopeful about Alvarez & Marsal's involvement.

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."

"I don't know how you can ever downsize, ever trim the fat when you don't know enough about the enterprise to even know what the fat is and what is critical. It's so absurd. People think they can come in and solve these problems of urban public schools without even defining the problem," Wells says.

"Fixing the budget for one year is not going to solve the layers and layers and years and years of inequality and neglect. It's a social problem; it's not a budgetary problem."

During a break in a particularly contentious meeting of the education coalition on June 21, Bill Roberti is standing in the hallway outside a third-floor lecture hall at Harris-Stowe. Roberti may be having second or third thoughts about his new gig, but it doesn't show on this Saturday morning. Holding a Styrofoam cup of coffee in hand, Roberti is wearing a navy blue blazer with olive khaki pants, tan socks, brown tassel loafers and a pink-and-white check button down shirt with no tie. Crisp, calm and casual.

Roberti is engaged in a give-and-take with several school employees, including custodian Gregory Bonnett, who is sporting a gray T-shirt, khaki shorts and sandals. The exchange is direct, but polite. Jobs are the issue. Bonnett tells Roberti he's concerned that low-income employees will lose their jobs when services are contracted out to private firms but that highly paid administrators will be untouched. "When you leave, those same people are still going to be at the top," Bonnett says. "That's where the problem is."

Roberti promises everything is under review and nobody's safe.

"I am going to restructure this entire system," Roberti says. "I'm going to make cuts everywhere, certainly at the top. We as a team evaluate all that, what's nice and what's necessary. What do we really need? What don't we need? Who's really got a job and who doesn't? How does this work? Tear that whole thing down and then restructure it into an organizational structure that works. How many people have just one direct report? What's the span of control? Who's the lead? Who's executing? That's what I have to figure out. This is not an easy task."

Roberti tries to leave Bonnett and the other employees with the thought that his firm might not end up being as expensive as advertised.

"If I get my job done here by December and I'm finished and the school board is lucky enough to find some wonderful, well-qualified superintendent to step in here, I go home and the money that was planned for that last phase doesn't get spent," Roberti adds. "I don't just walk out with a giant check."

For the district that writes that check, the concern is more about what Roberti will leave behind.

Correction published 7/16/2003:
The original version of this story incorrectly indicated that a 10 percent savings on the school district's $450 budget would nearly cover Alvarez & Marsal's projected $4.8 million consulting fee. The above version of the text reflects our renewed commitment to arithmetical rigor.

« Previous Page