Knockin' 'Em Dead

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

When Elliott Davis of KTVI-TV (Channel 2) asked Roberti how a broke school district can afford to pay him $425 an hour, the interim schools chief kicked the reporter out of his office. (When the Riverfront Times asked for an interview for this story, he scoffed, "You guys called me 'Demolition Man,'" and stalked off. He's right, of course; we did, in D.J. Wilson's July 9 cover story.)

And it's a safe bet that no one on his board of directors ever sent him an e-mail with the heading "YOU CAN KISS MY ASS."

Bill Haas says fellow board members have kept him and Rochell Moore in the dark
Jennifer Silverberg
Bill Haas says fellow board members have kept him and Rochell Moore in the dark
WGNU host Lizz Brown challenges every decision the school board makes
Jennifer Silverberg
WGNU host Lizz Brown challenges every decision the school board makes

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On a chilly October day, Bill Haas sits outside Einstein Bros. Bagels in the Central West End. He's talking about his English degree from Yale, his law degree from Harvard, his part-time jobs at Wal-Mart and Harris Stowe College and his three failed bids for the mayor's seat. A young African-American man walks by, recognizes Haas and calls out, "Give 'em hell, Bill!"

"I paid him to say that," Haas quips, clearly pleased with the compliment. "They all love me," he says later.

He has come to explain an e-mail he sent a few days earlier to Roberti. The subject line surely got the interim superintendent's attention. It said: "YOU CAN KISS MY ASS."

In the missive, typed at 1:10 a.m. on October 6 (available here), Haas refers to Roberti's colleague, Karen Marsal, as the interim superintendent's "strap-on girlfriend." He goes on to pose this question: "[I]f we're paying those incompetents [consulting firm McConnell Jones Lanier & Murphy] who did that piece of shit 'school consolidation report' a $1,000,000, what the fuck are we paying your firm's stupid asses $4,000,000 to do?

"You'll want to think twice before you write me or any other board member you ever work for another stupid, sarcastic email, won't you, sparky? Now go take your blood pressure medicine and retire."

Haas says he apologized to Marsal twice and adds that he has never used so many expletives at one time in his life. Then again, in a series of four voicemails to the RFT totaling sixteen minutes, he also opines that "Anybody who doesn't understand what I did and why I did it and why I'm angry can kiss my ass."

"I've had no power since the four of them got elected," explains Haas, who came to the school board in 1997. "I am smarter on my worst day than the four or five of them on their best. And I'm a pretty humble guy."

Can You Hear Me Now?

Dressed in a sharp charcoal suit, George Cotton stands before a crowd of nearly 300 people packed into the fellowship hall of St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church on Hamilton Avenue in north St. Louis. Cotton, a former district administrator and ex-University City councilman, announces gleefully, "We have Bill Roberti's cell phone number!"

The audience erupts. "Call him and see how he's doing!" Cotton teases. No more than five seconds pass before someone takes him up on it. "It's ringing!" screams a middle-aged woman, holding up her cell phone. "You better get out of our city!" she warns, and hangs up.

Lizz Brown, the radio talk show host, steps forward, beaming. "You gave five hundred and sixteen dollars!" she proclaims, holding a thick wad of cash. The money is for a nine-year-old boy who climbed over a stairway railing at Mitchell Elementary School on October 21, fell to the asphalt playground twelve feet below and was sent to the hospital, where he lay in serious condition.

The day he fell, callers to Brown's show prayed on the air. Brown blamed Roberti and the school-board members who hired him. "Roberti might as well have pushed him," Brown spat.

Her callers agreed heartily. They believe that children are not being properly supervised, owing to the board's decision to lay off 140 teachers' aides along with other support personnel. When callers don't agree with her, Brown cuts them off. She told one caller recently, "Of course I'm right. I'm always right."

Much of the information for Brown's show is collected by members of a grassroots organization called The Community, which meets every Thursday at St. Paul AME Church. At tonight's meeting, parents, teachers, district employees and students are poring over district financial information, documenting complaints and writing the school board to demand more data.

Brown's information also comes in the form of tips and rumors, passed along by parents, teachers, students and district insiders. Students from Compton Drew Middle School called her show November 4 to tell listeners that none of the school's eighth-grade teachers had shown up. (Nearly 200 teachers caught the "blue flu" that day to protest changes to their sick-leave benefits).

A teacher sitting in the front row at St. Paul's tonight stands to announce that at Roosevelt High School, fighting is getting worse. "There's so few staff," says the teacher (who later requests that her name not be published). "One kid, his eye was literally hanging out after the fight.

"The bathrooms are locked because there's not enough supervision," she continues. "So today somebody shit on the floor in the hallway and peed on the stairwell."

The district disputes that schools are understaffed and claims that its teacher-to-student ratios for every grade are the same or better than last year. Charlene Jones, an assistant superintendent and longtime district employee, says 200 additional certified teachers have been hired as part of an ongoing effort to gain full accreditation.

But Mary Armstrong, president of the Local 420 teachers union, paints a different picture. "As of today, we still have classes throughout the district that exceed the maximums," Armstrong informed the board November 18. "There are administrators using library media specialists as teachers. The first quarter is almost over and we still have classes that are lacking basic instructional supplies, textbooks and equipment. There still aren't enough desks or tables in some classes. Discipline remains a problem."

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