Knockin' 'Em Dead

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

Haas is yelling at him now. And Lanier has had enough. "My firm has taken a lot of abuse, and we're not going to take it anymore," he explodes.

"Go back to Texas!" someone shouts as he sits down.

A cadre of African-American Sodexho managers arise to introduce themselves and answer questions from the audience. Several people are concerned about a class-action lawsuit filed against the company by 2,600 black employees who claim they were passed over for promotions because of their race. "Thirty-three percent of our key leadership are minorities," contends Bruce Smith, an African-American Sodexho manager who will oversee city schools.

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

"We will have an efficient operation, so that money can be used on children," Smith goes on.

Many principals were sick of custodians and maintenance workers who did not get fired despite being lazy and inept, says Sajan George, the Alvarez & Marsal number cruncher. "Most of the outcry has been from those with jobs outside the classroom," George contends. "Principals and most teachers are thrilled."

Ron Hollis, an electrical supervisor, disagrees. He says the new board and the outside management team fail to understand that in St. Louis schools, maintenance workers and custodians were considered role models and friends.

"I've gotten to know everyone in the schools," he says. "I've spoken with students as part of the role-model program. We encourage them to stay in school. We stress the importance of engineering and math, and we tell them that ladies can enter this field, too."

Musical Chairs

Some suspect that the Sodexho contract has more to do with politics than with saving money. A subplot to the negotiations was the fate of two maintenance employees, John Miriani, a painting supervisor, and Joe Clark Jr., a plumbing supervisor.

Both are on the board of the Public School Retirement System of the City of St. Louis, an eleven-member committee that oversees a $900 million pension fund for district employees. Miriani and Clark both will lose their jobs as district employees when the Sodexho contract is activated this month -- which means they can no longer serve on the pension board. A third retirement official, Helen Lynch, was laid off by the district in October; an election in December will determine who fills her seat. A special election will be held in January for the positions held by Miriani and Clark.

"I don't think it's ludicrous to think [the new school board members] wouldn't try to influence the election," posits middle-school teacher Amy Collins, an incumbent who is running for re-election to the board next month. "After all, the fund is almost $1 billion."

Adding to the suspicion is the new school board's insistence that yet another pension board member, John Mahoney, was illegally appointed to the panel by former school board president William Purdy. Mahoney is one of four former school board members, including Purdy, who sits on the pension panel. The term of former school board member Marlene Davis expires in December; the Board of Education will appoint someone to fill her seat next month.

Roberti wants the retirement board to give the district a pass on making the school district's employer contribution to the pension fund for the next two years. That would free up nearly $40 million in cash for the school district. At the same time, of course, $40 million less would be available for the pension fund to invest for future retirees. (Each school district employee pays a mandatory 5 percent of his or her salary into the retirement fund.)

In addition, Sajan George says the Board of Education wants the retirement committee to re-evaluate the way in which it calculates the district's annual contribution. The board approved spending $10,000 for Paul Cholak of Clark Consulting to form a task force to study the actuarial assumptions. Thus far, the pension board has refused to participate in a task force.

"Under the Missouri statute, the contribution is due to us by December 31," says Gail Lakin, executive director of the retirement fund. "And we're fully expecting it will be made. If it isn't made, we'll discuss what to do at that point."

For now, she reassures pensioners that their retirement benefits are safe. She says hundreds of elderly people have shown up at pension board meetings recently because they're afraid the Board of Education wants to raid the retirement fund. Radio host Lizz Brown has frightened retirees with outlandish claims, Lakin says, including an accusation that Mayor Slay wants the money to build the new Cardinals stadium.

But Brown isn't the only one who's suspicious. "Roberti, Sajan George and Francis Slay all covet that $1 billion nest egg," says Purdy. "It would be a wonderful thing, from their perspective, to get control of it."

Let the Open-Minded Dialoguing Begin

The weather is unusually warm on this November 18 evening, and so is the mood in the Carr Lane Middle School auditorium. Tonight's audience is small and uncharacteristically quiet, minus the usual hecklers.

From her seat at the center of the stage, school board president Darnetta Clinkscale promises more public participation in the decisions ahead. "We've made changes, some so quickly that members of the community didn't have time to understand why we were doing things," she concedes. "This has built walls between us. I want to hear from parents, teachers, taxpayers and, yes, children. I want them to tell us what we need to do."

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