The Execution of Creg Williams

The St. Louis Public Schools superintendent takes a hike. Where does that leave the district?

Creg Williams

Last Tuesday — the same night the St. Louis Board of Education disposed of legendary basketball coach Floyd Irons behind closed doors — the board held its monthly administrative meeting. This time, the meeting was in public view. The agenda: Creg Williams' proposed budget for the 2007 fiscal year.

At the board's request, the embattled superintendent had lopped $4 million off of the version he had submitted in June. Going line by line, Williams proudly detailed the expenditures his staff had reduced.

But there was one line item, labeled "Auditors and Accountants Svc.," that had rocketed $200,000 — from $49,393 to $249,393. Williams had no way of explaining it.

That's because it was the board's doing.

Before a huge crowd, school board president Veronica O'Brien happily described how the board in May had decided to hire an outside auditor to open the district's books. The $249,393 concealed a real bargain, O'Brien said, because the board had convinced Diana Bourisaw — then-vice president of the Chicago-based executive-search firm DHR International — to conduct the audit for a mere $38,000. The extra $210,000 budgeted, O'Brien said, provided "a cushion, in case we need to go deeper."

For months, ever since a new majority supported by the teachers' union took over the board, Creg Williams' future appeared uncertain. Board members Bill Purdy and Peter Downs, the latter a longtime Williams critic, seemed to want to know how Williams spent every last dime. Now, with the board forcing the near-bankrupt district to spend $250,000 on an auditor, the man who thought he was hired to save the beleaguered St. Louis Public Schools was implicitly being accused of mismanaging district finances.

Three days after the open meeting, Williams received his walking papers, and the board announced that Bourisaw was taking over as interim superintendent, at a salary of $200,000 per year. O'Brien told the media that the plan to bring in Bourisaw was concocted early last week, and that Williams' well-publicized opposition to Floyd Irons' firing precipitated the superintendent's ousting.

It now appears that Williams' fate was sealed more than two months ago. "The game was up with the decision to audit," argues board member Ron Jackson. "In retrospect, it's clear that Bourisaw's involvement and takeover were carefully plotted and executed for some time before that."

The fireworks began Friday at district headquarters. At about 3:30 p.m. O'Brien and Purdy stepped into Williams' office and told him that if he didn't resign, he'd be fired that night. Williams complied and left the building within a half-hour. Her mission complete, O'Brien headed over to Mosaic for an early dinner with board attorney Ken Brostron and board administrative assistant Chip Clatto.

By five o'clock, a flock of reporters had gathered outside 801 North Eleventh Street, all of them anxious to cover the board's "emergency meeting." Board member Donna Jones arrived at 6:05 p.m. She said she had no idea why the meeting was called. Fellow member Bob Archibald appeared next. Grim-faced, he declared, "This is adults behaving badly, and children are paying the price."

Next came board member Peter Downs, wearing a blue polo shirt and a wide grin. Downs looked like he knew what was to become of Creg Williams.

Members Flint Fowler and Jackson arrived late, just as the board's attorney and O'Brien became embroiled in a dispute with Jerry Dobson. The St. Louis attorney was trying to stop the meeting with a restraining order. The attempt failed.

The hallway filled with St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department officers — just in case trouble ensued. "We've been down this road before," O'Brien told one of the officers, referring to her heated encounter with former board member Vince Schoemehl in December 2004.

Her left hand shaking, O'Brien finally called the meeting to order just after 7 p.m. The crowd stepped into the hallway to wait out the closed session. Minutes later O'Brien appeared and was escorted toward her office by police and Clatto. She buried her chin in her chest as Jackson strutted behind her, chuckling. "This is queenly behavior," he said sarcastically.

After several minutes, with reporters camped outside her door, O'Brien emerged with Diana Bourisaw on one arm and a police officer on the other.

"Hello, Mr. Jackson, it's a pleasure to finally meet you," Bourisaw said, sticking out her hand.

"I don't know about that," Jackson retorted, eyeing her hand disdainfully. "You're going to have to show me a lot."

The board members and Bourisaw, meanwhile, rushed back into the closed session. Robbyn Wahby, an education aide to Mayor Francis Slay, along with Byron Clemens and Mary Armstrong from the teachers' union and about ten district employees, waited with a throng of reporters for the circus to end.

Time was, Jackson and Archibald — formerly of the majority — deferred all comments to the board president. But when the meeting ended and O'Brien would say nothing about the reason for Williams' termination, Jackson and Archibald angrily spoke out. "This is a blood sport," Archibald said.

Added Jackson: "I call it the Friday night coup at 801."

Fowler, Purdy, Jones and O'Brien slipped out the back door unnoticed. But Downs made a public exit, beaming. Later, a television reporter commented: "What was with Downs? He looked like a kid at Christmas."

Replied Jackson: "He always has that shit-eating grin on his face."

By now it was half-past eight, and police officers began shooing the audience away from the superintendent's office, outside of which stood a skinny schefflera plant, a yellow bow fastened to its pot. A welcome gift for Williams, perhaps; it sprouted just a few leaves in the course of his fifteen-month tenure.

Come Monday the office had a new occupant, and it remained unclear what — if anything — the public would get for its $38,000 audit.

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