Board Games

New school-board members Amy Hilgemann and Rochell Moore wanted to improve public education in St. Louis but ended up suing the district. The gridlock continues, but the schools remain the same.

On the bench, the often imperious St. Louis Circuit Judge Robert H. Dierker Jr. presides, paging through legal documents and appearing uninterested as the two lawyers standing before him trade shots over motions to quash and writs of mandamus. Then Dierker lightens up, smiles and looks at the two bickering barristers, asking rhetorically, "Do you want to mediate this?" He is referring to the lawsuit filed by two St. Louis Board of Education members against the district and the board president. "Who would be the ombudsman for the school board?" Dierker asks, clearly amused by the proposition. "I can't imagine who I would appoint, and God knows nobody would volunteer."

The judicial humor is telling. Dierker, the lawyers and anyone within earshot during this preliminary hearing in the downtown Civil Courts Building know that the school district has borne a bull's-eye on its back for decades. The "provisionally accredited" district is the target of reasoned criticism based on its performance, and it's the target of malicious criticism based on racism, ignorance and fear. When the two camps end up humming the same tune, it's time to worry. And yes, despite the district's having come out of the nation's most costly desegregation lawsuit two years ago, after 27 years in which the fate of the district has been a federal case, there's still plenty to worry about with city schools.

The most recent brushfire is the suit before Dierker, with the trial set to start Monday. Board President Harold Brewster, miffed at new board members Amy Hilgemann and Rochell Moore for their brash actions early in their tenure, had the board's attorney "investigate" to determine whether the two women had exceeded their roles when they conducted their own research into the district's woes. The duo asked for the findings of the investigation, but Brewster refused to turn them over. The suit is an effort both to discover the nature of the investigation and to determine whether a board president can order such action.

Beyond this current suit, there are rumblings that the four-person majority of the board is so put out by the incessant questioning of board actions by Hilgemann and Moore that recall or removal of the two new members could be an eventual goal. The flip side of that rumor is that Hilgemann and Moore wouldn't mind if Brewster were removed from the board presidency or Superintendent Cleveland Hammonds quit, fed up by the infighting.

Even as both sides in this board war use a scorched-earth strategy, many of the district's schools continue to burn on their own. After the desegregation settlement in 1999, then-Missouri commissioner of education Robert Bartman asked that the district be stripped of its accreditation, but the state Board of Education never acted on that recommendation because the district had brokered a two-year reprieve from losing accreditation as part of the settlement deal. So the district is provisionally accredited, the academic equivalent of being on probation.

As board members mud-wrestle over control of the board, teachers such as Richard Bates, a faculty member at Northwest Middle School on Riverview Boulevard, have a more immediate and real concern: control of the classroom. They get no respect from some students, and they get little help from the administration in dealing with those students. "I've been called 'motherfucker' so many times -- you write it up, you request to see parents, but they have so much damn red tape," says Bates, who is also vice president of the St. Louis Teachers Union. "I'm telling you, there are kids walking around in my middle school who are chronically disruptive every single day. I'm talking about running the damn halls all day ... So you got kids pissing in the hall on one side over here, you got kids smoking reefer. There's all kinds of mess going on."

If there were any doubts that Hilgemann and Moore would hit the ground running -- and knock things over -- they were erased at the pair's first board meeting, April 10, in the Carr Lane Visual and Performing Arts Middle School auditorium. At that meeting, Hilgemann asked to see samples of the $1.5 million worth of new health books the district was buying, because the city schools had not taught health in 12 years. When Hammonds attempted to explain why that might be difficult, Hilgemann advised the superintendent, "I don't work for you, you work for me." The hissing of Hilgemann by the staff in attendance had already started.

"What was the big deal? School boards look at books all the time," Hilgemann recalls. "We were supposed to sit there and say, 'I agree with the consent agenda,' like they all do. All Hammonds wants is a rubber stamp."

From that moment on, the board meetings wouldn't be the same. In addition to the friction with Hammonds, an adversarial relationship developed between Hilgemann and Moore and Marlene Davis, who was board president at the time. Previously, the effect of two new board members, however zealous they might be, would have been diluted by the mix of a 12-member board. But Hilgemann and Moore were new to the game, had unseated two veteran incumbents and were displaying a sense that the district was in a state of emergency.

Neither side is without error or guilt in this mess, but the clear underdogs in the scrap are Hilgemann and Moore, two outsiders who were elected in April in the first board election held for its seven-member configuration, reduced from a 12-member board in the settlement agreement. In that same election, Bill Haas was re-elected and two incumbents failed to get enough votes. Haas, who lost three campaigns for St. Louis mayor, has found a home on the school board, where he remains a fringe dweller despite being elected board secretary. Although Haas didn't campaign with Hilgemann and Moore, he usually sides with them when issues come to a vote. But that just adds up to a series of 4-3 losing tallies.

Only six months into Hilgemann and Moore's terms, any agenda that might be ascribed to the two remains vague, but it would start with the money and how it is spent. "Chop at the top and move the money down," says Hilgemann. "Downtown, we have too many people, too many managers." Hilgemann and Moore want to be watchdogs, but they both stress that attitudes must improve. "When we first got in there, we got so many outrageous, crazy things, letters and stuff, we couldn't believe it," says Hilgemann. "But as we look at the documents, we start seeing there is this pattern of complete arrogance and disregard, a kind of attitude that exists in this district that new teachers, new people come in here and say, 'Screw it, I don't have to be treated like I'm a nothing.

"The arrogance that exists among all these folks downtown and some of these principals -- you walk in as a parent in St. Louis Public Schools and you get treated like crap," says Hilgemann. "I'll talk to people at schools and, until I say who I am, I may as well forget I even called. That's got to stop."

What Hilgemann and Moore want is pretty much what anyone with sense or decency wants: better schools, better-educated students and better management. How that breaks down into real solutions is a work in the early stages of progress. Often what Hilgemann and Moore say doesn't rise above the usual platitudes, but it's clear they have energy, ambition and a sense of urgency, three things the city schools often lack.

The racial and socioeconomic backgrounds of the people delivering this message aid their cause: Moore, who is black, holds a bachelor's degree from Harris-Stowe State College and lives two blocks north of Delmar Boulevard. She heads her own technical- and creative-writing company, Nubian Enterprises. Hilgemann is white; she has a doctoral degree in public policy from St. Louis University and for 15 years has been the executive director of Behavioral Health Alternatives in Wood River, Ill. She lives in racially mixed and economically struggling McRee Town with her husband, state Rep. Thomas Hilgemann (D-St. Louis).

The two women seem to maintain almost constant contact. They carry each other's business cards so they can hand out both at once. When together, they often finish each other's sentences. During meetings, they operate like tag-team wrestlers, taking turns talking, each relieving the other. But even with that singular purpose, together they are only two votes on a seven-member board. So the election of a sympathetic president was essential for them to get much accomplished.

In Brewster, they thought they had a comrade. Like them, Brewster was a frequent critic of Hammonds, so much so that Haas would not support him for president because of Brewster's memos criticizing the superintendent. "We said Harold was the best person for the job because he could be a thorn in the superintendent's side," says Moore. On the first ballot for board president in June, Hilgemann and Moore voted for Brewster. But on the second ballot, Haas nominated Hilgemann. No one got a majority vote, so the election was postponed until the July 10 meeting.

At that meeting, it was clear that things had changed. To the surprise of many, Hammonds spoke glowingly of Brewster. Bill Purdy, who had been at odds with Brewster, nominated him for president. Brewster won that night with support from Hilgemann and Moore but since then has distanced himself from both women, although he insists there are "no hard feelings." Brewster's critics charged that a devil's bargain had been struck: Brewster had dropped his objections to Hammonds in exchange for the superintendent and board majority's agreement to fund an auditorium for the new Vashon High School, Brewster's alma mater. Brewster denies this.

Also at the July 10 board meeting, the newly aligned four-member majority -- Brewster, Davis, Purdy and Paulette McKinney -- steamrolled the attempt by Hilgemann and Moore to make a PowerPoint presentation of their budget recommendations. The two had labored over 47 pages of recommendations in 21 budget categories ranging from transportation to travel to postage. Most focused on cutbacks, including a savings of $7 million in transportation costs by eliminating at least 200 of the district's 1,100 school-bus routes. Under their plan, except for children with physical or mental handicaps, elementary-school students living within a mile of school would not get bus rides. High-school students living farther than two miles from school would get passes to ride Bi-State buses. Those who live within two miles of school would be on their own.

In some areas, the pair recommended spending more money. They proposed a $789,049 increase to hire 25 new social workers, thereby improving the current ratio of one social worker per 1,000 students. They noted that the district had proposed more money for travel, $3.2 million, than for social-work costs, $3 million. Hilgemann and Moore sought to shave $568,610 from travel costs by limiting trips to personnel who had been selected to make presentations at conferences and to staff members required to attend conferences in Missouri as determined by the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

For some of the cuts, Hilgemann and Moore gave precise dollar amounts but did not explain them. On postage, the pair said, $137,558 could be saved through an agreement with the Postal Service for bulk-mail services, but they gave no explanation of how they arrived at this figure. In food service, they recommended that the cost of lunches be increased by 15 cents and that "teachers and other staff pay the cost of the meal, and not receive discounts." They also suggested paying for kitchen equipment at new schools out of the construction budget, with a total savings from these changes of $796,933. There is no breakdown of how the changes lead to the exact savings.

For two new board members to be making such sweeping budget recommendations barely three months into their terms did not sit well with other board members or district administration. After the nixed board presentation, the pair mailed their recommendations to local media and others, pouring salt into open wounds. After those mailings, Brewster asked the board's attorney to investigate Hilgemann and Moore to determine whether they had used their power as school-board members to intimidate district employees into giving them information concerning the budgeting procedure.

"That new board members could come onto the board and be able to read the budget the way we did, they are so upset about that," says Moore. "It makes them look bad because they've been sitting on the board all these years and haven't done a thing."

Hammonds says that the current lawsuit between the board members is "more about each other than me at this point" but also says he feels that Hilgemann and Moore have moved too fast. "The only thing any superintendent expects from new board members is that they come in, they get all the facts, all the information, then they try to understand how the system works -- and sometimes you have to go through a cycle before you can understand that -- before they make pronouncements, and before you declare this or declare that," says Hammonds. "After that, then open the door. New ideas, solutions are welcome. Nobody cares where a good solution comes from as long as it has an impact on the system. But if you begin to reach conclusions before you go through that cycle, that's what happens -- you divide.

"I think you need to be on the school board for at least a year before you understand how the system operates. Some things only happen once a year," Hammonds says. "You go through the cycle; then, if you reach the same conclusions, so be it."

Clearly Hilgemann and Moore don't see it that way. The district's $533 million budget last fiscal year was the largest of any district in Missouri. They believe they were elected to start shaking things up -- right away. If anything, the two wanted to be more specific about their budget ideas, but, they claim, "two-thirds of the information we requested" was not provided to them by district officials.

"We were starting to dig through files and look at things," says Hilgemann. "It became very apparent that if we didn't know the answer to a question we asked, we might as well not ask it, because they gave us wrong information intentionally. They outright deceived us with their responses. We reverted to putting everything in writing. We don't meet with Hammonds -- we had met with him before. We don't do anything in a discussion format because he can say anything he wants to and he did. So now it's all in writing, and we have stacks of memos."

After their blitzkrieg budget work triggered Brewster's request for the first investigation, the decision by Hilgemann and Moore to mail out their recommendations to media and politicians set Purdy on the warpath and spurred the second investigation into who paid for the mailing. Purdy had paid the postage cost for his own mailing about the budget to be sent to the same group Hilgemann and Moore had targeted. The Sept. 4 meeting of the board was disrupted by Haas' swinging open the doors at an executive session and saying he would not be part of any "star-chamber proceeding" that would persecute the two board members. Security guards were summoned to the meeting, and things quieted down.

Though the second investigation into Hilgemann and Moore's activities has heightened anxiety levels at subsequent board meetings, it is not part of the current lawsuit. Brewster declines to comment on the suit but blames Hilgemann and Moore for the current contentious condition of the board. "It's not in my control," says Brewster. "It's in the control of who's causing the friction. I'm not causing the friction."

Hilgemann and Moore are causing friction, and they do so without apologies. What is striking about their effort to shake up the city's schools is that their backgrounds and credentials make them immune from some of the attacks aimed at prior critics of the district. Their criticisms of a bloated bureaucracy, top-heavy administration, wasted resources and widespread inertia are not that dissimilar from charges leveled at the district by "white rights" or anti-busing forces during the desegregation suit. From the mid-'80s until 1991, board members battled over busing and how the district spent its money. Veteran board member John Patrick Mahoney remembers how those racially charged days consumed the board's time.

"The immediate crisis, the immediate anger from one board member to another, always captured the time," he recalls. "Someone would come in with a load and attack somebody else, and you'd lose that time. From '87 on, we had to deal with the white-rights group. That was a battle every day for every window, for every nail in the reconstruction project. That was an exhaustive process that was resolved in the election of '91," when an anti-busing slate of candidates lost.

Mahoney, who in April was ousted after 18 years on the board, coming in 1,800 votes behind third-place finisher Moore, sees a clear difference between what the anti-busing forces were supporting and what Hilgemann and Moore do. "They understand there has been a big demographic shift," says Mahoney. "You have a very diverse South St. Louis, a huge immigrant population, a huge black and white population. It's almost impossible to do what would have been the intent of the old crowd at this point and time."

Any accusation that Moore and Hilgemann's desire to revamp the system is racially motivated would be hard to support. And times have changed the dynamic. In the '80s, there may have been other motivations to promote neighborhood schools and curtail busing; in 2001, the proposal to provide buses only for students who live more than a mile away from elementary school and two miles from high school is designed to save money, not promote racial isolation.

When Moore plays a race card, it has to do with what she believes is the discriminatory advantage of being black in a district where 83 percent of the students are African-American. It's easier for Moore to talk about racial issues than it is for Hilgemann.

"The beauty of our friendship and camaraderie on the board is that I can bring certain things to the table where Amy can't. I know many of these people -- many of them are in the same sororities, in the same social clubs; they gather together. They're relatives; they're sisters, cousins," says Moore of district employees. "A white person can apply for a job, and they'll lose your application. But if I know someone and I'm black, my application gets put through. That's been known. It's a whole set of different rules. They have certain things reserved for blacks. There is racism in St. Louis public schools. Certain things that I'll do, some of the employees won't respond to me, but they will to Dr. Hilgemann. It's just blatant, sometimes, when we're in a board meeting. They'll hiss and they'll boo when she says something."

The message Hilgemann and Moore try to deliver, says Moore, is about "fiscal management," about identifying budget items they think can be better spent. "Nationally, people are taking huge steps forward, going against the grain, because we have to," says Moore. "The public is saying, black families are saying, 'Enough is enough.' It's 'I don't care who's working down there; they're not teaching my child to read.'"

Hilgemann and Moore often cite the book City Schools & City Politics, co-authored by University of Missouri-St. Louis political-science chairwoman Lana Stein, to explain what's wrong with the city's schools. Stein has been observing the recent board fracas and is disappointed.

"I don't recall thinking that this was going to turn out quite this way," says Stein of the duo. "They got real revved up that the school system was really, really bad and that it had to change. I can understand that in Boston and Chicago, where mayors have taken over school systems and made a difference. But I don't know if they found the best way to get the point across, because for them to be portrayed as people who are just causing a commotion just blunts the whole message of the fact that there are many things that need to be changed and need to be addressed. I'm sure that the school system and some of the other school-board members are eager to paint them that way."

The one good thing, Stein believes, is that, unlike most other new board members, Hilgemann and Moore have not been co-opted by the status quo.

Still, even frequent ally Haas admits, "Amy and Rochell were shooting from the lip a little bit" on some topics. "Amy was mean to people in public; she didn't always have her facts right. You need to do better if you're going to be criticizing a lot," Haas says. "But her heart was in the right place; she needed some people skills. She was trying to be constructive, and a lot of her ideas were good ones."

Moore once requested that an executive session of the board be tape-recorded and sometimes makes motions in administrative committee meetings that are outside its scope. Both Moore and Hilgemann admit that the learning curve is steep. "Neither of us could do this alone," says Hilgemann. "This is hard. There is so much information that we've read. The sad part about it is that other board members come to the meeting, open their packets, and they haven't even read what's in the packet. That is not being a board member."

The board's internal combustion occurs as the district teeters on the brink of losing provisional accreditation, meeting only five of the state's 12 performance criteria for 2000. Accreditation is based on a five-year cycle, so the final judgment won't be made until 2004. Until then, city schools are being assessed yearly; this year's assessment is due out next month. The slogan "Destination Accreditation" has been pushed by Hammonds, who has held massive pep rallies at the Savvis Center and at America's Center.

Achieving full accreditation -- or at least avoiding the loss of accreditation -- should be, and often is, the primary focus of the school board.

Even the district's defenders confirm the long list of problems. With 41,786 students, 82 percent of whom qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, the city's schools face problems of concentrated poverty, transient families, inadequate housing and poor health care that simply don't exist at comparable levels in suburban districts. The Missouri district most like St. Louis in size, demographics and dynamics is Kansas City. It's the only one of the state's 524 districts that is not accredited. St. Louis is one of the state's 35 provisionally accredited districts.

And although the dropout rate in St. Louis schools has improved to 8.8 percent from 21.1 percent in the last four years, it's not clear that the average over the five-year cycle will be low enough to bring the district out of provisional accreditation. Test scores are up, but only marginally and not across the board.

On Oct. 18, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education identified 15 public schools in the state as "concerned" schools, basing the rating on poor district-level graduation rates and school-level test scores. Of the 15 schools cited, five are in St. Louis -- Roosevelt, Beaumont and Sumner high schools and Williams and Humboldt middle schools -- and nine are in St. Louis County, in the Normandy, Wellston, Riverview Gardens and University City districts. The only outstate school is Hayti High School, located in the Bootheel. Over the next two or three months, DESE will monitor those schools, which could then be classified as academically deficient.

"In some ways, our action was redundant," says Jim Morris, DESE spokesman. "The city had already identified 40 schools to zero in on, what they call 'schools of opportunity.' They had targeted some low-performing buildings on their own initiative. By state board policy, we will not identify in a single year any more than five buildings in a single district. It's possible that there would be other buildings that would meet our criteria, but just to avoid piling on, we intentionally limit the number of buildings in any district that we will target within a single year."

Last week, Hilgemann and Moore testified before a hearing on urban education chaired by state Sen. Peter Kinder (R-Cape Girardeau), a conservative Republican who supports the opening of more charter schools and the tuition-free St. Louis Academies, backed by the Church of God in Christ. Most of the witnesses had lined up to support charter schools; some even talked up vouchers. During her testimony, Hilgemann floated familiar maxims about the city schools, including: "We spend the most money and [have] the worst results. Obviously something is disconnected."

Hammonds had testified earlier in the evening and, as usual, sounded upbeat. In a prior interview, Hammonds admitted that sounding upbeat is part of his job.

"It's a culture," says Hammonds. "We have to work to make people believe it can happen. They get all these other messages about 'nothing's happening' and 'things are horrible,' you have to build a sense among the professionals, among the students that we can, that we can achieve it, we're going to achieve it and keeping that going. Some people will say, 'His head's in the sand; he doesn't realize how serious the problems are.' So what happens if I'm gloom-and-doom and you're out there in the classroom? That doesn't encourage you. I have to keep that spirit going. And then somebody on the sideline might say, 'There must not be any sense of urgency; it doesn't sound like he even understands the problem.' No, I understand the problem, but I have to keep those people going. I have to keep the fire burning in their belly."

Hilgemann doesn't buy the idea that the pep talks have inspired district employees at the central office downtown. "People downtown see clearly that they have no power to do their job, and they're all depressed," she says. "They might as well have Xanax dispensers in the bathrooms. Before they got the edict that they couldn't talk to us, they were saying, 'Every time I go to Hammonds, this will get nixed, or that.' A lot of them gave up."

Although Hilgemann and Moore clearly would like a different superintendent, Hammonds has no plans to leave.

"I enjoy the job very much," says the 60-year-old Hammonds. "You have to have a certain kind of attitude to be an urban superintendent. You have to have a strong belief system because, y'know, it's a tough war. You can't produce the results that you can out in suburbia with those kids. The worst thing I can do to this system is cause a major disruption, so if the school board is fighting, then all of a sudden I leave, that would have a terrific impact because you have a break in that continuity when we're trying to focus on something that's really important. So it would take a lot to push me out that way, because of my feelings about the system. It would be nice if everything was smooth, because that's the time to leave. I don't mean perfect ... Then I wouldn't feel guilty. I wouldn't feel that just when people need stability the most, I jump off. But I'm not suicidal, either."

The high profile Hilgemann and Moore have achieved in their brief tenure has drawn support from classroom teachers anxious for change. It's not so much that they see the pair proposing specific solutions for their day-to-day problems, it's just that they recognize someone else flailing against an unresponsive system.

Ray Feick, a specialty coordinator at Gateway Tech High School, sees Hilgemann and Moore as a needed force of change. "This school system runs from the top down," says Feick. "In none of my 31 years with this school system have I seen a philosophy coming from the downtown administration, and that's especially true with the current administration, where teachers are involved in the discussions as to what the problems are and how to solve them.

"I don't think there's anyone out there with enough guts to stand up to the superintendent or the other people in the downtown office who put together the programs," says Feick. "I don't see them as part of the solution, because I'm not sure they know what the problems are. They certainly don't take the time to ever come down and talk to the teachers and find out what the problems are."

A frequent teacher complaint is lack of control in the classroom, with principals and administrators not backing classroom teachers' attempts to suspend undisciplined students. The unavailability of in-school suspension, where suspended students stay in a classroom at the school, is one missing solution, these teachers say.

Bates, a teacher at Northwest Middle School and vice president of the teachers' union, sees control of the classroom and the school as a basic problem. He says principals want to limit the number of suspensions. With those kind of immediate, in-your-face situations popping up every day, a little fuss on the school board doesn't faze Bates. "Maybe people don't agree with the way that Amy and Rochell are handling their business, but I still take my hat off to them, because they're going out to the schools and talking to real people. They're not sitting behind some damn desk," says Bates. "The board president had a problem with them talking to district employees, but, hell, there's no surveys being done; how else do you know what's going on? If you don't get out and see what's going on, how do you know? This board has a history of not being involved. They're so involved with photo ops and shaking hands, they're not doing a damn thing to improve education. There are no visionaries there."

Visionaries may be too much to ask for, but more rational, robust debate about budget priorities and a bit more attention to classroom matters would be a good start. Instead, the school board is engaged in a 4-3 gridlock on all matters, large and small. The one thing that is sure is that the four members who control the board are more than a year away from their next election, in the spring of 2003. "You can bet they will be marshaling forces in the community to stop anybody who looks like they have the support of Rochell and Amy," says Haas. "There's no lock on us getting more voices who want change."

Until then, former board member Mahoney believes, for the board to make progress with productive programs that have been proposed, the temperature at meetings must drop. "With all this political crap with the new players coming in, they spend an inordinate amount of time just attacking each other and bickering," says Mahoney. "They lose sight of what's in front of them. It's immensely frustrating, because all these initiatives were in motion and then you hear they're suing each other, they're in court."

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