Education

St. Louis Eyes Private Manager To Run Schools

By Catherine Gewertz — May 28, 2003 4 min read
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The St. Louis school district plans to hire a private group or company to act as its interim superintendent, a move that would place it among only a handful of districts in the nation that have chosen outside organizations to manage all of their affairs.

A special committee has winnowed a field of 10 companies and partnerships down to three. This week, it plans to recommend one to the school board for the job, which could last up to 18 months. The board is expected to vote on the matter May 30.

The district chose to pursue bringing in a private organization because it hopes to draw on management expertise to improve its operations before hiring a permanent superintendent, a district spokeswoman said last week.

“We need someone to come in and assess the district and look for opportunities to strengthen our organizational structure and systemic business practices, things like purchasing materials and managing day-to-day staffing,” said Rita Holmes-Bobo.

She added that while the district is struggling to adapt to cuts in state aid—$11 million this school year and a projected $17 million next year on a $455 million annual operating budget—it performed well in a recent independent audit.

The need for new leadership emerged when Superintendent Cleveland Hammonds Jr. announced in January that he would retire June 30 after leading the 39,700- student district for seven years.

New Faces

An April 8 school board election delivered four new faces to the seven-member board. Within weeks, a specially formed committee of board members and civic and business leaders began looking for private groups to serve as interim superintendent. Ten companies or partnerships responded.

School board members declined last week to discuss the selection process. Ms. Holmes-Bobo identified the three finalists as New York City-based Alvarez & Marsal; McConnell, Jones, Lanier & Murphy, a consulting group based in Houston; and FTI Inc., of Annapolis, Md.

According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Alvarez & Marsal proposes teaming a former chief executive officer of Brooks Brothers, William V. Roberti, with former New York City Schools Chancellor Rudolph F. Crew. McConnell, Jones suggested bringing in Don Hopper, a past president of the American Association of School Administrators, the newspaper reported. FTI proposes hiring private providers for food services, maintenance, and information technology, and streamlining central-office operations, it said.

Critics worry that students’ academic needs will not get sufficient focus, and that the cost of using a private interim leader will be too high. McConnell, Jones, for instance, projected charging fees as high as $3.2 million, the Post-Dispatch reported.

“I don’t think a company can adequately oversee anybody’s child’s education,” said Dorris Walker-McGahee, the president of the Parent Assembly, an advocacy group that includes representatives of St. Louis’ 113 schools. “If [the district] has all this money, why don’t they put it toward our children, and toward teachers’ salaries?”

Mixed Record

The Minneapolis district hired an outside firm to serve as its superintendent from 1993 to 1997, and the Hartford, Conn., school system employed a private company to run its financial operations from 1994 to 1996.

Edison Schools Inc., an education management company based in New York City, has managed all of the public schools in Inkster, Mich., since 2000. A state administrator was appointed last fall to smooth financial disputes between Edison and the district.

The idea of using a private group offers promise, but also warrants caution, experts said.

“If there are short-term things to do, and they get clear on what they are and get a handle on them, and if they use the time to make sure they find the right person [to be the permanent superintendent], this could be a good stop-gap measure,” said Todd M. Ziebarth, who studies education governance models as a policy analyst for the Denver-based Education Commission of the States.

But he cautioned that the district will need sound educational leadership over the next 18 months, because it will be a time of intensifying federal pressure for districts to comply with the mandates of the “No Child Left Behind” Act of 2001. Choosing the “interim” route also raises questions about how smoothly the district will make a transition to a permanent superintendent, Mr. Ziebarth said.

Frederick M. Hess, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington think tank, said using a private company to improve operations before new leadership arrives could enable the superintendent to begin the job without having to alienate key players to tackle organizational issues.

But such a firm, Mr. Hess advised, has to be able to reallocate resources as it believes necessary if it is to succeed.

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