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Published in Print: January 12, 2005, as St. Louis District Faces Feuding School Board, Labor Unrest, Red Ink

St. Louis District Faces Feuding School Board, Labor Unrest, Red Ink

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Six months after a corporate-turnaround company finished work aimed at fixing the St. Louis public schools, the leadership of the district is in turmoil.

The interim superintendent has been replaced amid debate over pay raises given to other administrators. Board members are feuding. And the local teachers’ union has voted to strike.

Meanwhile, the 39,000-student district continues to reel from a budget deficit. Although less than the $75 million projected 18 months ago, the shortfall stands at about $40 million, out of total budget of about $465 million.

“The general morale in the St. Louis public schools is lower than I have ever seen it,” said the Rev. B.T. Rice, a member of the Black Leadership Roundtable, a local civic group.

Relations in the St. Louis school community have been rocky since June 2003, when the school board hired the New York City-based Alvarez & Marsal to overhaul the system’s noninstructional functions. The decision to put specialists in corporate restructuring in charge of the district was an apparent first in public education. ("Private Managers Stir Up St. Louis Schools," Sept. 3, 2003.)

Headed by William V. Roberti, a former executive of the Brooks Brothers clothing company, the private management team sought to stem the flow of red ink through laying off employees, closing schools, and outsourcing operations such as food service.

The idea was to fix the district’s management woes so a new superintendent could then focus on instructional improvement.

That plan hit a snag last spring, when the school board’s first choice for a new superintendent, former New York City Schools Chancellor Rudolph F. Crew, opted for the top job in the Miami-Dade County, Fla., public schools. Instead, a longtime St. Louis administrator, Floyd Crues, was made interim chief while a national search for a permanent superintendent continued.

Boardroom Drama

Controversy erupted again in November, after the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported that the number of top district administrators earning $100,000 or more had tripled over the previous year. The news set off a hot dispute among board members as they debated Mr. Crues’ role in the matter.

In an episode that got much play in the local press, police were called to a closed-door meeting on the issue when a board member accused another member, Vincent C. Schoemehl, of acting threatening toward her. Mr. Schoemehl, a former mayor of St. Louis, said he merely yelled at a colleague who was yelling at him.

“Is this a divided board? You better believe it,” Mr. Schoemehl said last week. “It’s 4-3, and there are four of us that are absolutely committed to changing this from a dismal, criminally underperforming school district to a national standard. And there is always going to be some ruckus when you’re making that kind of institutional change.”

Board President Darnetta Clinkscale said that at the time of the dispute the board majority questioned whether Mr. Crues had approved raises without following the right procedures. “We were beginning to look into whether or not those had occurred completely in accordance with his contract,” she said.

But board member Bill Haas, who has pursued legal action to prompt further investigation of Mr. Schoemehl’s behavior at the closed meeting, argues that the board had been properly informed of the raises at issue. He charges that questions raised about the superintendent were meant to deflect criticism over the salary issue by blaming him.

Regardless, Mr. Crues opted to leave the job late last month, citing medical reasons. In an interview this month, he called the complaints about the raises “disingenuous.” But he added that he never expected to be in the job for long.

“I had no intention or desire to be superintendent,” he said. “I just wanted to help make the transition easier.”

Board member Amy Hilgemann, another of Mr. Crues’ defenders, charges the board majority with micromanaging. “He would have been fantastic,” she said. “They wouldn’t let him lead.”

Amid the drama, the city’s schools face another looming challenge: salary talks with the teachers’ union, the American Federation of Teachers Local 420. District leaders have proposed a four-year plan to bring teacher pay in St. Louis up to that of surrounding districts, while extending the lengths of educators’ workdays and work years.

Union officials did not return calls for comment last week, but earlier they said publicly that the district’s plan would not eliminate the pay gap. Last month, union members voted to authorize a strike. Although walkouts by teachers officially are illegal in Missouri, district officials have begun hiring substitute teachers in case a job action takes place.

Despite the tensions, the St. Louis schools recently have taken important steps to improve academics, said Ronald L. Jackson, the vice president of the school board. In the past few months, the district has hired a new chief academic officer, adopted a districtwide reading program, and begun to explore creating smaller learning communities in its high schools.

“Despite some blips on the screen,” Mr. Jackson said, “I think that we are pretty focused on the bottom line of helping children read and write and compute.”

Mr. Haas agrees progress is being made. Upon Mr. Crues’ departure, the board agreed to name his deputy, Pamela Randall Hughes, as the new interim superintendent. Board members say they remain optimistic that they can hire a proven leader as a permanent schools chief in the coming weeks.

“Part of what you could say is: Do we really want anybody who would want to come here?” Mr. Haas said. “But I like to think on the other side, and say: Do you really want anybody who’s afraid of a real challenge?”

PHOTO: A Pomeranian dog named Sugarbaby carries a sign for its owner, Darla Urbina, a Spanish teacher at Gateway Institute of Technology, during a Dec. 14 rally by teachers’ union members in St. Louis.
—Huy Richard Mach/St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Vol. 24, Issue 18, Page 10

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