Cloned Drones

The Danforth Foundation joins the long march to replace the School Board's "Gang of Four"

This April, it's Powerball time for the city's Board of Education.

That's when it looks like the board's ruling Gang of Four will depart, leaving a critical mass of open seats on the seven-member board.

As always, the stakes are high even if the electorate doesn't seem to care.

Once the newcomers get in office, they'll determine who the next superintendent is, how millions of dollars will be spent, and what drastic changes, if any, will be tried to fix a district that teeters on losing its accreditation.

The expected departure of the Gang of Four -- board members Bill Purdy, Marlene Davis, Paulette McKinney and Board President Harold Brewster -- is a rare opportunity for candidates who want rapid reform of the state's largest school district, with more than 42,000 students and a $450 million budget that is second only to the state government's overall spending blueprint.

It's also a cause for concern for the cautious who worry about reform being too drastic.

Of course, board members don't get paid a dime, they work in the quicksand known as urban education, and citizens don't pay any attention to them unless they have a troubled child in a troubled school.

Payless, fruitless, and thankless.

But there's still the fear that this dreary task might attract the wrong sort of candidate. And that's motivating a group of civic do-gooders to push the idea of forming a St. Louis Education Caucus before the election to screen candidates and possibly rate them as "highly qualified," "qualified," or "unqualified."

Bill Haas, board member, frequent mayoral candidate, and current state representative candidate, says the caucus is a thinly veiled attempt by the powers that be, backed by the Danforth Foundation, to make sure the four-member voting bloc about to leave the board will be supplanted with like-minded, go-with-the-flow replacements.

"This is about replacing Huey, Dewey, Louie, and Screwy with four people just like them," says Haas.

For the record, Haas is not referring to himself as "Screwy."

The Gang of Four have had a bitter falling out with the two reform candidates elected last year, Amy Hilgemann and Rochell Moore. The rift ended up in court, with Hilgemann and Moore suing the board for investigating them [D.J. Wilson, "Board Games," August 22, 2001]. The board lost that suit but decided to appeal. The rift continues.

Haas sometimes sides with Hilgemann and Moore, only to be defeated on issues, large and small, by a 4-3 vote. That math could change in April and that could affect Superintendent Dr. Cleveland Hammonds Jr., who is regularly backed by the four-member majority. "If Amy and Rochelle get two more votes, they'll get rid of Cleve," says Haas, who adds that he doesn't always agree with Hilgemann and Moore. "All of us are concerned they might move too fast in directions that aren't well thought out."

With even frequent ally Haas worried about what a new board might do, it's a good bet other people are nervous, too. That anxiety is fueled by Hilgemann and Moore making their own plans about recruiting candidates with similar worldviews.

In a more mainstream mode, a cover letter about the St. Louis Education Caucus, signed by Danforth Foundation Senior Vice President Bob Koff, went out to more than 200 people on May 30. The packet of information included 14 pages of bylaws and a page of questions and answers. The caucus would have a nine-member board of directors, with six members from the city and three from the county.

Koff says more than 60 folks have replied to the mailing, all backing the idea of forming the group. Some of those responding want the caucus to rate candidates, some have reservations about any rating. The mailing states that the caucus is nonpartisan but "not tax-exempt, because it rates candidates running for office."

Koff insists the intent of those behind the caucus is benign.

"The idea is to try to get the views of these candidates before the public and have the public know who they are and what their views are because they've been vetted in public forums," says Koff.

Koff insists that the Danforth Foundation is not running this train. Or paying for it.

"This is not a Danforth Foundation initiative. If there is going to be an organization that is going to evolve from this, then it will do so. But the Danforth Foundation certainly will not be supporting it financially because right now it's not thought of as a not-for-profit."

Haas and others aren't buying that. They see Danforth Foundation fingerprints all over this.

"They're doing this under the imprimatur of the Danforth Foundation and some sort of broad-based, public-citizen objectivity. Bullshit. The people who started this are going to choose people for the board who are just like them," says Haas. "This isn't about objectivity."

Public-school advocate and parent Susan Turk is suspicious.

"The Danforth Foundation effort is not directed at insuring that we get more constructive reform candidates elected to our school board," says Turk. "They're trying to predetermine the outcome of next April's election and that concerns me because I have not seen that their actions in the past have had a beneficial effect on the quality of education in the St. Louis public schools."

One education insider, reluctant to go on the record, thinks the guiding principle with the Danforth Foundation is to choose an "easy, establishment way" to help schools:

"Amy Hilgemann and Rochell Moore may not have been the best candidates, but what they're trying to do is absolutely right.... Somebody needs to look at this stuff and ask the right questions. But that's messy and the Danforths don't like messy things. It's very messy when somebody starts mucking around in something that's running more or less like it's always run."

Sheryl Davenport, president of the teachers' union, generally supports the concept of a caucus to promote awareness of educational issues, but she doesn't think the caucus will end up making formal endorsements. And the board doesn't need a peacekeeping force.

"I don't see Amy and Rochelle as disruptive," says Davenport. "I see them as pushing the envelope. They're asking questions that, frankly, the union has been asking for a long time. Amy and Rochelle bring a sense of urgency to the board."

Koff denies that the St. Louis Education Caucus is an attempt to thwart any future Hilgemann or Moore allies. But he admits the timing of the proposal is geared toward the spring elections.

"It's clear that if such an organization were to get up and running, it should be up and running before December so in fact it could have some impact on the April election," says Koff. "If we miss that board election, we'd have to go to April 2004."

For his part, William Danforth says he has nothing to do with the proposed caucus.

"I don't live in the city. My role is not to get into that sort of politics," says Danforth. "I don't know a tremendous amount about it and I'm not anxious to get involved in that."

Danforth was instrumental in the settlement of the desegregation suit in 1999. Since then he has been the co-chair of the St. Louis Community Monitoring and Support Task Force. That group, set up as part of the desegregation settlement, issued its second report on city schools last week.

"Execution is the thing," says Danforth. "It's good to have good programs but execution is very important. To use a football analogy, it's about blocking and tackling. We had suggested, not for the first time, that there be a group brought in as some businesses do, to help them develop a better-functioning system."

In other words, the task force suggested consultants.

Let's be blunt: Bill Danforth doesn't have to spend his time or money fretting about the city's public schools. Give points to the former Washington University chancellor for caring. But the public doesn't need some group to rate its candidates. This is just one step away from some Civic Progress-type money finding its way to candidates judged to be "highly qualified" by the caucus.

Haas, despite his quirky rep, has done some good work. His Ninth-Grade Initiative, geared to keep freshmen in school, has probably done as much good for the schools as any number of paid consultants. And Hilgemann and Moore do kick up some dust, but that's not a bad thing.

"If the Danforth Foundation knew so much about education, we wouldn't be in so much trouble," says Haas. "This caucus will wield disproportionate power and be protective of the status quo. It will be business as usual. It should be about ideas and leadership and challenging the status quo and thinking outside the box. The Danforth Foundation and the people behind this idea are the box."