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St. Louis to Close 6 Schools, Eliminate 490 Jobs

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In a move that stops short of the more drastic cuts seen in other urban school districts, the St. Louis school system plans to shut down six schools and eliminate nearly 500 jobs to reduce a $58 million budget deficit.

Superintendent Kelvin Adams announced the proposed cuts Thursday night at a meeting of the Special Administrative Board, a three-member panel that has overseen city schools since a 2007 state takeover. The panel still must approve the plan at its April 29 meeting.

Adams' plan would affect 226 teachers, 130 teaching assistants and office workers, 54 administrators and central office workers and 80 long-term substitute teachers. The superintendent said he hopes to avoid layoffs through early retirement and attrition.

More than 600 employees are eligible for retirement. After the meeting, Adams said that 150 employees had already accepted retirement offers since they were presented earlier this week.

The board met in a packed downtown conference room, with district employees who couldn't fit inside lining an adjacent hallway. But only a handful of speakers voiced opposition to the cuts. Among the supporters were members of the local chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, who had negotiated with the superintendent.

"We worked on this together," said board member Richard Gaines. "This is the first time it's been presented to the public. But it's not a surprise to any of us."

The schools slated for closing consist of an ROTC high school, one middle school, two alternative education schools, an after-school program and a special education site. Those schools are generally far below capacity.

Just one month ago, the Kansas City school board agreed to close nearly half of its 61 schools in response to its own $50 million budget shortfall. Detroit also closed 29 schools this academic year. And multiple school closings have hit Milwaukee, New York, Seattle and suburban Atlanta in recent years.

Adams cited similar examples of widespread layoffs and school closings under consideration or implemented in those cities as well as Indianapolis, Omaha, Neb., Wichita and St. Paul, Minn.

Despite the relatively light impact of the St. Louis cuts, the specter of further closings remains. Twenty-one of 52 Missouri schools targeted as low-performing are in St. Louis. While those schools could be eligible for a share of $54 million in federal stimulus grants, the trade-off could mean more shutdowns, teacher and principal firings or conversion into state-supported charter schools.

That exodus to charter schools has played a significant role in the school system's current budget crisis, Adams said. The St. Louis district already closed 13 schools before the start of the current academic year as enrollment plummeted from more than 40,000 in the 2004-05 school year to less than 26,000 now. An additional two dozen schools were shuttered in the preceding six years.

"Dollars move when students move," Adams said.

The system also lost an estimated $6 million in state support this week after Gov. Jay Nixon rejected a plan by state lawmakers to shield St. Louis and a select group of local school districts from budget cuts in basic state aid.

The proposed school closings and layoffs will increase the teacher-student ratio in St. Louis from 13.5 students for every teacher to 16.2 students per teacher. That falls below the state standard of 17 students per teacher, though Adams noted that, unlike the state, his figures include special education teachers.

Just two speakers protested the cuts. Parent Donna Jones, a member of an elected school board that remains despite the state takeover but lacks direct oversight, distributed petitions in the hallway calling for a federal civil rights investigation based on what she called the district's lack of support for its black students.

"Where is the magnet school in north St. Louis?" she said. "We have nothing."

Along with the job cuts and school closings, district employees face five unpaid furlough days in the coming school year. Those days will not result in diminished class time for students, officials said.

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