Knockin' 'Em Dead

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

With the help of PR giant Fleishman Hillard, which was paid an undisclosed amount by Civic Progress, the candidates sold the idea of reforming city schools by stripping waste and returning dollars to the classroom.

During his campaign, Schoemehl told the Post-Dispatch that being mayor had taught him how important it is for the public to believe in what elected officials are doing. "Confidence in the schools can be restored," he said. "But this will require candid interaction with the public."

Soon after the slate took office, though, "interaction with the public" evaporated. During its first meeting, the new board withdrew the public-comment segment from the agenda entirely. The revelation that Fleishman Hillard was being paid by Civic Progress to assist with public relations added to suspicion in the black community that the board had been hijacked by big money and special interests.

Former St. Louis mayor Vince Schoemehl admits his "arrogant behavior got the new board off to the wrong start"
Jennifer Silverberg
Former St. Louis mayor Vince Schoemehl admits his "arrogant behavior got the new board off to the wrong start"
Interim schools chief Bill Roberti's $425 hourly rate galls many district employees who don't earn that much in a week
Jennifer Silverberg
Interim schools chief Bill Roberti's $425 hourly rate galls many district employees who don't earn that much in a week

The Riverfront Times submitted a formal request, under the state's public records law, for all correspondence between Fleishman Hillard and the Board of Education. Lawrence Wadsack, an attorney for the board, responded that no memos, letters, e-mails or other forms of written communication exist.

A Math Lesson

Despite the imposing name, Grand Center's headquarters occupy a stuffy, low-budget suite on the top floor of the building on Grand Boulevard that houses the city's health department. On Vince Schoemehl's wall hangs a framed cartoon with two buzzards sitting on a branch. "Patience my ass," the caption reads. "I'm going to kill something."

Schoemehl wants to talk about the school district budget today. He explains that he and the other new board members were shocked when, not long after they were sworn in, superintendent Cleveland Hammonds Jr., who had announced his retirement, revealed that the district faced a $55 million shortfall. "We thought there was plenty of money when we ran," Schoemehl says.

Former school board president Bill Purdy isn't buying it. "If they didn't know, it means that they simply did not do their homework before they were elected," Purdy says. "Governor Holden held a major press conference in Jefferson City, where I was present, and distributed a written document showing how much each Missouri district would be cut."

Purdy, a retired city schools principal, also disputes Slay's characterization that the old board and Hammonds spent the district's cash reserves "like drunken sailors." The year before, the board had approved spending down the reserves by $10 million to cover a promised pay raise to teachers, according to former district treasurer George Byron. As the state budget cuts kept coming, Purdy says, the district slashed spending on administration and board expenses and froze hiring in some departments.

With the superintendent retiring and the budget in the red, the new board hastily assembled a committee -- made up of Schoemehl, Jackson, Hilgemann (who was elected in 2001) and executives from Civic Progress -- to choose an interim district leader. One of the options Schoemehl strongly pushed was hiring an outside consulting firm, rather than one person, to come in and cut the fat in a $455 million budget.

Within two weeks of receiving proposals, the team selected Alvarez & Marsal, a New York turnaround firm that customarily saves businesses from bankruptcy. Bill Roberti, a former clothing company executive, would lead a team of consultants in an unprecedented experiment that would garner national attention -- solving inner-city education woes by using corporate management and cost-cutting strategies.

The price tag for Alvarez & Marsal alone would be $5 million, plus expenses. As of October 15, the district had paid Alvarez & Marsal nearly $2 million, including $179,000 for lodging, meals, plane tickets, cab fare and, in one case, a $135 limousine ride for Roberti from LaGuardia Airport to his home in Connecticut. Another consulting firm, Houston-based McConnell Jones Lanier & Murphy, has been paid nearly $800,000, including expenses.

The team quickly pronounced the budget deficit even direr than Hammonds' prediction. They said $90 million needed to be sliced from the previous year's budget in order to balance revenues and expenses. The plan Hammonds had submitted to the Board in May would have closed six schools at the beginning of the summer and eliminated all athletic programs citywide. Instead, the new board voted to close sixteen schools -- twelve of which were in predominately African-American neighborhoods of north St. Louis -- and announced in August that 1,400 employees would lose their jobs immediately.

The backlash was intense. As the first day of school approached, Democratic presidential candidate Al Sharpton came to town and urged parents to keep their children home. Lizz Brown, host of the WGNU (920 AM) talk show The Wake Up Call, denounced Roberti as a racist monster.

This wasn't the first time Roberti had dealt with pissed-off people. There were the inconsolable Ivy Leaguers who berated him for adding too much polyester to Brooks Brothers suits when he was president and CEO of the upscale haberdasher.

But they never called him a child abuser, a thief or a coward. They never organized in the halls of churches or assailed his name day after day on the radio. And reporters never asked him to justify how he could charge more money for an hour than many people earn in a week.

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