St. Louis Public Schools

STL Public Schools on the Chopping Block

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Teachers, students, parents, and citizens in St. Louis have struggled for years to preserve and improve the city’s public education system. However, these defenders of public education have continually faced an onslaught of attacks from the Mayor, Missouri State Government, private interests, and now the School Board itself. Although the history of the St. Louis Public Schools (SLPS) is complicated, only a brief account of the last nine years is necessary to explain why the district remains in its current predicament.

Francis G. SlayFrom the outset of his 2000 mayoral election, conservative and Republican-funded Democrat Francis G. Slay espoused anti-public education rhetoric and a financial and political encouragement of charter schools. In 2003, he plotted a takeover of the School Board, assembling a slate of four candidates who spent over $400,000 on an election that in the past cost less than $5,000. Following its victory, Slay’s new majority board quickly began its onslaught on the public schools, hiring the consulting firm Alvarez and Marsal (A&M) on a one year contract that cost $5 million (no small fee given that the district was over $50 million in debt).

A&M hired William Roberti, the former CEO of Brooks Brothers, to serve as the new superintendent of the district, despite the fact that he had no prior educational experience. During the year, Roberti was paid a “modest” $425 an hour and lived in an expenses-paid $2,400-a-month suite in a ritzy hotel. The leadership of Roberti and A&M organized the closure of sixteen schools,  layoffs of support staff, the privatization of the cafeterias and grounds keeping, and clearly demonstrated a desire to bust the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) Local 420. The school board had clearly disclosed its corporate agenda through this introduction of private sector practices into the public sector. Despite this encroachment, the St. Louis public continued to resist.

In 2006, supporters of public education fought back, electing two parents of students in the district to the school board. These two overcame the financial disadvantage of running against candidates who were endorsed by Slay and the corporations, and who had amassed $500,000 in campaign contributions. This marked a significant victory in the local struggle to defend public education. However, the damage to the district had already been done; while under direction of the Slay-supported board, the SLPS’ accreditation score had dropped sixteen points. The new Elected School Board (ESB) tried to mend these wounds and regain accreditation points, but the state of Missouri, with encouragement from Mayor Slay, voted in 2007 to remove the school districts’ accreditation and replace the ESB with a Special Administrative Board (SAB). The SAB, which maintains legal authority over the SLPS today, consists of three members, all of whom were appointed by government officials rather than being elected by St. Louis voters.

The future of the SLPS, while in the hands of this corporate-run and appointed board, seems even more uncertain than in past years when unscrupulous elected board members held majority control. With the state now legally in control of the district, improvements to meet Annual Yearly Progress (AYP) must be made within the next few years, otherwise the state department of education may decide to disband the entire district. In other words, teachers must raise their students’ standardized test scores while receiving fewer resources and funding.

The collapse of the district would of course delight Mayor Slay and co., who have given up all hope in the SLPS and have instead fully supported charter schools. Due to the Slay administration’s support of charters, which take away public funds from other public schools, and his heavy reliance on tax abatements and TIFs (Tax Increment Financing) to attract new corporations and residents into the city, the SLPS loses out on millions of dollars that it should have received through public taxes.

For example, the St. Louis Cardinals recently benefited from a decision by Mayor Slay to use public funds to build a brand new ballpark, an action that ignored the electoral will of citizens of St. Louis who voted against the funding. Additionally, Slay has provided the owner of the Cardinals and corporate developers $125 million in TIFs for the development of a “Ballpark Village,” which it is now rumored may not even be built. A significant percentage of these hundreds of millions of dollars could have been allocated to the SLPS and the education of inner-city youth, but instead the Mayor has prioritized corporate interests in the city.

Irresponsibility on the part of the city administration, underfunding and a plethora of other problems has resulted in another budget deficit for the public school district, this time to the tune of $36 million. Consequently, the SAB announced its intention to resume where the 2003 anti-public school board left off, and to close or relocate an additional thirty schools. The board followed the methods of its predecessors, hiring the consulting firm MGT of America for a mere $650,000 to conduct its dirty work. MGT unashamedly stormed into St. Louis, pursuing a slash and burn cost-reduction agenda without ever taking the time to explore the intricacies of the district or the students and schools it incorporates.

The SAB and MGT ran a propaganda campaign, arguing that many schools were operating at half-capacity (administrators have argued that MGT incorrectly inflated these statistics) due to decreased enrollment trends across the district over the last ten years, and that maintaining all functioning buildings would be financially unfeasible. The district once educated 115,000 students, reaching its peak in 1967; the current projection for enrollment in 2018 is only 20,000! After compiling all of its data, MGT announced its Comprehensive Facilities Review at a heavily attended public meeting on January 29, 2009, making recommendations for school closures, consolidations, and renovations to occur over six phases. Angry students, parents, staff, and community members alike reacted by expressing their opposition to the proposal, offering several arguments against school closings, namely the vital role played by neighborhood schools.

In the following weeks, the SAB held two public forums to address community concerns about the MGT recommendations. Nearly one thousand people attended, with 192 speakers arguing fervently against school closures and in defense of public education in the city. However, the sheer number of schools listed to undergo the restructuring process created internal dissension between them, resulting in individual schools being positioned against each other as they all fought to keep their doors open.

This approach ultimately proved successful for the SAB: several well-known schools such as Sumner High, Gateway IT High, Cleveland Junior Naval Academy, and McKinley Classical Junior Academy that had initially been suggested for closure, roused alumni and parents to hold community forums in which they called for their schools to be removed from the chopping block, whereas those schools located in more economically disadvantaged neighborhoods were less able to rally a viable defense. The SAB must have expected this response from schools with more prominent recognition, knowing that they could never have approved their closure without facing public contempt. By sparing some schools, they could present themselves as “reasonable” and open to negotiation. Unfortunately, once a school was rumored to be removed from the closures list, its supporters seemed to have disappeared from the debate, leaving the other schools to fend for their own survival.

At a sparsely attended March 12th meeting, the SAB voted unanimously in favor of the Superintendent’s proposal to close seventeen of the schools originally recommended by MGT. Only a handful of people attended to voice their disapproval at this final meeting, with many seats remaining empty, indicating the resignation of the community to the impending school closures.

However, the issue at hand is not how one school can outlast another. The more complex societal issues must be addressed: as long as the privatization of education in cities like St. Louis is encouraged, the system of public education itself, including its schools, employees, and students will remain under threat. Communities must rally together to defend, fully fund, and radically improve public education. Rest assured, most politicians will not advocate in defense of education for working class people, as many of them can afford to send their children to expensive, elite private schools that will never face any of the problems encountered by districts such as the SLPS.

AFTLargely missing from this debate on these closings was the American Federation of Teachers Union Local 420, which expressed hardly a peep of outrage or defense of its workers. AFT Local 420 could have advocated against school closings by mobilizing its membership for mass action that would garner both community support and media attention.

Unfortunately, the union leadership turned its back on its base, the teachers, who hold the power to strike and shut down the schools – in order to keep them open in the long run – and instead committed to a strategy of playing friendly with the SAB. Not only do teachers face displacement and layoffs due to the closures, they also continue to work without a contract, which expired in the summer of 2008. After a year of closed negotiations between the union bargaining committee and the SAB, the general membership still remains largely in the dark about the details of the negotiations. Teachers have not seen any increase in salary for the 2008-2009 school year and still do not know if the bargaining committee will try to secure a pay increase, protect tenure and seniority rights or even fight to maintain binding language in the contract.

Several rank-and-file union members called for the union’s executive board to approve a mass rally that would put pressure on the SAB, yet the leadership refrained from acting, stating only that it would hurt the union more to hold a poorly attended rally than none at all. Clearly, had the union staff desired to coordinate the stewards to mobilize teachers in their schools, a mass action would have been possible and significant. In the end, no plans were made, resulting in a general membership that remains for the most part inactive. Local 420 President Mary Armstrong did have an article published in the city’s daily newspaper advocating for community schools, but it was too little, too late to impact the SAB’s vote.

These closings are just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the predicament of the SLPS. The Missouri state legislature has introduced several bills that will strengthen charter schools, including one that will overturn the current deed restriction, allowing charter schools to purchase the district’s unoccupied buildings, and another authorizing the Mayor to charter schools rather than simply advocate for them. The state senate has just given initial approval to a bill that will introduce merit-pay to the SLPS, allowing teachers to earn up to $15,000 in higher salary over three years, but requiring these teachers to opt-out of their tenure track which provides them job security. Merit-pay will potentially place teachers at the mercy of evaluations conducted by principals and parents, known to be biased in their judgment from one teacher to the next.

A better future for public education is possible, not only in St. Louis, but around the country. However, it will only come from solidarity between parents, teachers, and students. Local 420 must organize these contingents, calling on mobilizing other unions and the broader labor movement to expand the fight to defend public education as a right for all. An attack on one is an attack on all!

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