Talking Heads

Their mouths move when they speak, but is someone pulling the strings?

Bill Haas is a serial e-mailer. In his most infamous missive, on October 6, the St. Louis school board member made headlines by inviting William Roberti, the acting superintendent of schools, to kiss his ass. Most of the time, Haas' e-output isn't so profane, but it's prolific. So it wasn't particularly unusual to find, on the morning of November 21, an e-mail from Haas to about 50 local journalists.

"I was told by a member of our board office this morning that they have regularly been getting emails from robbyn wahby and richard callow with 'talking points' for Darnetta, our President," Haas wrote.

Wahby is Mayor Francis Slay's education adviser and a former school board member. Callow is a public-relations honcho who helped get a slate of four candidates -- Darnetta Clinkscale, Robert Archibald, Vincent Schoemehl Jr. and Ronald Jackson -- elected to the school board in April with the financial backing of Slay and Civic Progress, a group of high-powered CEOs. Since then, teachers, employees, parents, students and citizens have loudly criticized the new board's plans to hire several high-priced consulting firms, to lay off more than 1,400 employees and to close sixteen schools. Some opponents went so far as to print up T-shirts with the slogan "Slay's Slayers" -- insinuating that the new board was acting at the behest of the mayor.

The day Haas' e-mail tip arrived, the Riverfront Times submitted a formal request, under the state's public records law, for all correspondence between the mayor's office and the St. Louis Board of Education.

It turns out Haas was right. On November 17, the day before a school board meeting in which a new "community engagement" plan was announced, Wahby sent board president Clinkscale and board member Archibald an e-mail and copied it to Callow and a team of consultants. The text:

Darnetta & Bob:

Please find attached the resolution, talking points, possible questions, and the process overview.

If you have any questions, please feel free to contact me or any member of the team. The team roster is attached for your convenience.


At the board meeting the following night, Clinkscale and Archibald followed the talking points Wahby had provided (see photo). Acknowledging that changes had been made so quickly that many people felt confused and angry, Clinkscale asked Archibald to explain how a new "community engagement process" would help to rebuild trust between the school board and the public. Archibald read aloud the resolution (provided by the consulting group), which authorized the board to form a "Facilitating Team of community representatives to provide guidance and direction for a community engagement process."

In addition to the talking points, Wahby's e-mail helpfully provided Archibald and Clinkscale with a list of "Frequently Asked Questions" -- and answers. An example:

Question: "Is the Mayor's office behind all this? Civic Progress?"

Answer: "Mayor Slay has demonstrated time and again his commitment to school reform. We would certainly not leave him out of such an important process, and we look forward to his continued, active support. Many business leaders in St. Louis also realize how important quality education is to the future vitality of our region. We also look forward to their continued support, both in terms of participation and funding.

"IF PRESSED: Is the Mayor's staff working on this?

"As we said, the mayor is committed to school reform, and his office has been involved in helping us craft this engagement process. We look forward to their continued support, and his essential leadership on this issue."

A few minutes before rolling out the new PR campaign that night, board members had met behind closed doors to approve the sale of Theresa School, a 98-year-old edifice designed by noted architect William B. Ittner. Despite offers for more money from entrepreneurs who proposed to renovate the building, located near Grand Boulevard and Interstate 44, the board voted to sell it to Koman Properties, a strip-mall developer that planned to tear down the ornate structure.

Board members swore they hadn't seen a November 11 letter from deputy mayor Barbara Geisman supporting Koman's strip-mall plan. Amid vocal opposition from preservationists, the board later reversed its decision, its members protesting that they'd been misinformed about the school's historic status.

The Geisman letter and the e-mails from Wahby indicate that the four new board members are "more inclined to listen to city hall than to people," says Haas, who was elected to the board in 1997 and has been a vocal critic of the new slate. "The people who voted for these candidates hoped they would think and act for themselves, and they just seem to be puppets of the mayor's office."

Adds board member Rochell Moore, who was elected in 2001 and is also critical of the newcomers: "Robbyn Wahby has no business interfering with the board or trying to direct board members on how to carry out their duties."

Archibald, chairman of the Community Engagement Committee, refused to comment about Wahby's e-mails. He referred all questions to Clinkscale, who has been out of town on business and unavailable for an interview.

Asked whether the mayor's office is behind the school board's community-engagement plan, Wahby replies, "I don't know how to respond to that question. Are we supportive of and helping to provide information to the board about it? The community has every right to be part of the education process and the mayor is very much in support of the community being engaged in St. Louis public schools."

Wahby says Clinkscale and Archibald came to her asking for help in structuring a community-engagement process. "There are professionals who do this for a living, and they wanted to find the best information available and give it to the board," Wahby explains.

The Education Coalition, a group that was formed to campaign for the new school board slate, assembled a team of nine PR specialists from Vector Communications, Unicom/ARC, Inc., the Vandiver Group, the Rome Group and Public Eye (which is owned by Callow). The consultants met with Archibald and Clinkscale to craft the community-engagement plan, according to Wahby. Money will be raised from individuals and businesses to pay for the costs of the consultants, who have yet to charge a dime for their services, she adds.

Callow, who lives with deputy mayor Geisman, disputes the implication that Archibald and Clinkscale are following cues from the mayor's office. "They are people with a wide circle of acquaintance and people of strong will themselves," Callow says. "If they had followed any single script, I like to think things would have been a lot smoother than they have been for the last several months."

The slate's association with the mayor's office, Callow goes on, is more of a benefit than a detriment. "The mayor is a lot more popular than the school board," he says.

"I don't believe the charge from the school board is simply as narrow as mollifying critics," Callow continues. "The agenda is to reconnect the public school district with the wider civic community, with residents, taxpayers and parents and people who are looking at the city and wondering if they would like to live or work there. If the point were just to speak to the loudest, angriest voices right now, they could probably do that with an employee newsletter, or a former-employee newsletter."

Nonetheless, Callow and Wahby emphasize that there is room for detractors in the community-engagement plan. "If there is not a place for them, this will not be successful," Callow asserts. "If they are the only voice, this will not be successful."

Civil rights activist Percy Green, who was arrested at the school board's November 18 meeting for his vocal criticism of board members, doubts any strong voices of opposition will be allowed to have a leadership role in community meetings. "They want to run what they call 'community engagement' in the same manner that they are doing Advance St. Louis," Green says. "They put their people in there and guide those people to support the atrocities they have committed."

The plan calls for the selection of seven to ten community leaders, who will organize and set the agenda for town-hall meetings on public education issues in St. Louis. Consultants will begin interviewing possible team leaders soon, says Rod Wright, president of Unicom/Arc, Inc., a St. Louis PR and research firm that helps school districts throughout Missouri and Illinois to connect with constituents. Recommendations will be taken to school board members, who will select chairpersons early next year. Community meetings would be held at neighborhood schools from February to May, and recommendations would be made to the board next September.

Pat Moss, a 26th Ward committeewoman representing the near north side, is skeptical that critics will be welcome in the community-engagement forum. But she holds out some hope. "I'm not getting up there criticizing them just to be mean. I am seriously concerned," she says. "The educational process is very important. To young African-American children in north St. Louis, education is the only true way to unchain oppression."

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