Knockin' 'Em Dead

Here's how the Board of Education could raise money for St. Louis schools: Charge admission to its meetings

 The Pledge of Allegiance

The line outside the door is beginning to swell as the fire marshal counts how many seats are left in the auditorium at Carr Lane Visual and Performing Arts Middle School on North Jefferson. "We can have fifteen more!" a police officer hollers. "Come on through," motions the security guard, who checks the bags of the last few people allowed through the metal detector gates.

Inside, the audience is raging.

Tom Carlson and Jennifer Silverberg
A line stretches out the door as people file through the metal detector before a Board of Education meeting at Carr Lane Middle School
Jennifer Silverberg
A line stretches out the door as people file through the metal detector before a Board of Education meeting at Carr Lane Middle School

"Gangsters!"

"Go home!"

"Five million dollars!"

The familiar refrain resonates above the chorus of frenetic conversations about closed schools, pension funds and privatization.

And the October 14 meeting of the St. Louis Board of Education hasn't even started.

School board president Darnetta Clinkscale bangs her gavel. "It's time for the Pledge of Allegiance," she chides.

From the back of the mostly African-American crowd, someone shouts, "First we have to be one nation!"

Vincent P. Schoemehl Jr., the former three-term mayor who won a seat on the school board in April, is guzzling a Diet Coke and trying to keep his cool.

William V. Roberti, the high-priced interim superintendent, is staring down the audience. He may appear stiff in his navy-blue suit, but he's no softy. He retired from the U.S. Army Reserve as a colonel.

But just in case, the front of the stage is lined with security guards. St. Louis police officers are waiting in the back to haul off anyone who misbehaves. (A week earlier four people were arrested after a former school-district employee jumped onto a table and screamed in Roberti's face.)

A few awards are handed out, a couple of reports delivered, and then it's on to the 30-minute segment of tonight's meeting that has been set aside for public comment.

"You say the people who come to the board meetings are troublemakers. I'm an A student," scolds Ashley Parish-Nunley, an eighth grader at Compton Drew Middle School. "My bus stop has been moved three times. I have to stand and wait ten to twenty minutes for a bus that won't even show!"

The next speaker is Joe Clark Jr., a school-district plumbing supervisor. "This is about escalating costs, about money, about control, about power, and least of all, about the education of children!"

A buzzer rings, indicating Clark's allotted three minutes are up, but he's not stopping. The next speaker on the list, Ron Hollis, volunteers to give up his time so Clark can finish.

"That's not your discretion," snaps Schoemehl.

"I've been with this district for 33 years!" Hollis thunders. "You don't tell me about my discretion!"

"Let him speak! Let him speak!" the crowd roars in unison. Everyone rises to their feet.

Schoemehl throws up his hands. "We can't conduct a meeting like this! No one can hear!"

"This is embarrassing!" board member Amy Hilgemann shouts. She heaves her briefcase onto the table and bolts off the stage along with Roberti, Schoemehl and fellow board member Bob Archibald. Another board member, Ron Jackson, wrings his hands and smiles uneasily, as if he's unsure what to do.

"Shut it down! Shut it down!" the audience chants victoriously as board members Bill Haas and Rochell Moore smile smugly.

Clinkscale, who was elected to the school board in April along with a slate of three other candidates including Schoemehl, bangs her gavel, but no one is listening. Finally the mallet's wooden head flies off and rolls across the stage.

Tonight's meeting is over.


A History Lesson

The idea to run a slate of candidates to take over the St. Louis school board was hatched by Mayor Francis Slay's office, Civic Progress and the Black Leadership Roundtable, a group of prominent African-American businesspeople and civic leaders. With four seats open, Civic Progress, a coalition of the area's high-powered CEOs, raised more than $200,000 and the mayor's war chest kicked in $50,000 to ensure the victories of Schoemehl (president of Grand Center Inc.), Clinkscale (patient care director at BJC Healthcare Systems and a member of the Roundtable), Jackson (assistant director of St. Louis for Kids and Roundtable member) and Archibald (president of the Missouri Historical Society).

Nearly $100,000 went to Joyce Aboussie, national political director for Democratic presidential candidate Dick Gephardt. Aboussie's St. Louis telemarketing firm identified likely voters and called them up with a recorded endorsement from the mayor and two prominent black pastors: Black Leadership Roundtable president B.T. Rice and former school board president Earl Nance Jr., who's now a member of Slay's education task force.

To be sure, the candidates had plenty of ammunition in their attack against the status quo at St. Louis schools. The 10 percent dropout rate for the 2002-03 school year compares to a statewide average of 4 percent. The graduation rate for the same year was an abysmal 58 percent, compared to 84 percent statewide. And the number of junior high students unable to read or do math at their grade levels was far above statewide averages. In addition, only 88 percent of city school teachers were certified, compared to 97 percent statewide. (As bad as those numbers sound, they actually were huge improvements over past years. The district is only provisionally accredited but has been making strides to reach full accreditation next year.)

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