Knockin' 'Em Dead

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

Two months after school started, students complain that they still do not have teachers for some classes. Teachers are still being moved to new schools as the district tries to juggle the logistical fallout of hastily closing sixteen schools.

Blame It on a Decline in Inventory

Percy Green is arrested during an otherwise quiet November 18 board meeting
Jennifer Silverberg
Percy Green is arrested during an otherwise quiet November 18 board meeting

After his school was closed this fall, fourth-grade teacher Andrew Latchison was sent to Banneker Elementary, just south of Delmar Boulevard and west of Jefferson Avenue. "Teachers learn to adjust and adapt," says Latchison. But, he adds, "There are some things that are intolerable. A lot of people are not being sensitive to the needs of these kids."

When Latchison heard Hempstead Accelerated Elementary School would close, he was devastated. Not only had he taught fourth graders there for six years, but he had attended the school as a child.

"That neighborhood was a family," Latchison says of the north-side community where Hempstead once served 233 students. Over the years, he had sat down for dinner at the homes of many of his students. When families from the school fell on hard times, he took coats and food to their doors.

"There was no closure," Latchison laments. "We had to walk away from families we had seen every day. We can't be there for them to hug them and love them."

Schools and churches were sources of stability in many poor neighborhoods, providing a place to gather, not to mention a place to vote, says Lizz Brown, the WGNU host.

"I know Cleve Hammonds wouldn't have said, 'We're going to close schools and that's the end of the discussion," Brown says. "There would have been hearings, public comments. And I would have done the same thing I'm doing here -- asking for justification, making sure decisions are being made fairly."

Closing the sixteen schools is expected to save $14.5 million a year in operational costs. Of course, if district officials had been paying attention over the years, they could have closed schools gradually, rather than shuttering sixteen buildings all at once, says Sajan George, an Alvarez & Marsal consultant who was the district's acting chief financial officer until earlier this month. Enrollment has dropped 65 percent since 1967, George points out, but until this year the number of school buildings had only been reduced by 35 percent. "As inventory declined...." George pauses, then corrects himself. "As the number of kids declined, they should have closed buildings."

Going Once, Going Twice...

Peter Downs, a parent who ran unsuccessfully for the school board in the April elections, questions whether some of the school closings were necessary. A former RFT contributor, Downs has diligently recorded the daily activities of the board in an e-mail newsletter called "St. Louis Schools Watch."

Downs singles out the closing of magnet elementary school Waring Academy of Basic Instruction, located at 25 South Compton Avenue. The school had made impressive strides in its academic performance since 1999, with better-than-average test scores in math and science. The team of consultants that evaluated whether it should be closed gave it the highest academic ranking but docked it for low enrollment and lack of air-conditioning. They recommended that Waring's 156 students be relocated to Madison Elementary School on South Seventh Street, despite the fact that they'd given Madison a lower academic ranking and the building is 30 years older and in need of costly repairs.

"The suspicion was that the school board was closing Waring because St. Louis University wanted the property," Downs wrote in an October 22 newsletter.

According to an August 20 contract between the school district and local real estate giant Hilliker Corporation, the broker's commission would be discounted 45 percent if Waring School were sold to SLU.

As it turns out, SLU did have its eye on the school. The university bought the property for $1.25 million on November 6. Two weeks later, the university's president, Reverend Lawrence Biondi, revealed that the university is strongly considering building its new basketball arena on the site of the shuttered school.

"Go Back to Texas!"

Odysseus Lanier is expecting a fight tonight. It's November 4, and the school board is slated to approve a contract to pay $55 million over five years to Sodexho, a multinational food-service and facility-management firm.

The lights from the TV cameras illuminate Lanier as he delivers his PowerPoint presentation, proudly reciting the details of the deal he brokered. With the help of charts and graphs, he demonstrates how the district will save $5.9 million per year by putting Sodexho in charge of the district's buildings and grounds.

Then the heckling starts.

"House Negro!"

"Uncle Tom!"

Lanier has been called every racial slur imaginable since his Houston consulting firm, McConnell Jones Lanier & Murphy, was hired to assist Alvarez & Marsal.

From up on the dais, Bill Haas is barking at Lanier like a Chihuahua who has grown tired of being used as a tree by the big dogs.

"This community deserves a two-week dialogue on this, not twenty minutes before we take a vote," Haas complains. "We're expected to accept that we're saving money when we're given things at the last minute!"

Lanier explains that his firm negotiated with the unions so that 330 janitors and 26 engineers will stay on as district employees. (The custodians, however, are taking a 6 percent cut in pay.) About 115 other maintenance employees -- painters, carpenters, electricians -- will lose their jobs, but they can reapply. Approximately 73 will be rehired by Sodexho. "We didn't take this process willy-nilly--"

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