Teachers, parents fight school cuts in St. Louis

ST. LOUIS – This city’s public school system, like so many others around the nation, finds itself in the grip of a severe crisis. Its problems have been brought to a head by the recent privatization of the system’s management. Many parents are threatening to have their children boycott classes when schools open, especially in the district’s Black community, where 16 schools are being closed.

This spring an election for the St. Louis Board of Education was held with a slate of candidates – now called “the gang of four” – put together by Mayor Francis Slay, who is white. The slate was heavily backed by members of Civic Progress, the big business group that includes as members, Anheuser-Busch, Emerson Electric, Ameren and other major corporations of the St. Louis area. These three firms alone donated at least $20,000 each to the slate’s campaign.

The “gang of four” consists of Darnetta Clinkscale, Bob Archibald, Ron Jackson and former Mayor Vince Schoemehl – two whites and two Blacks. They won the election and then, having obtained a majority on the Board of Education, they fired the Superintendent Cleveland Hammonds and brought in a “turnaround” company headed by William V. Roberti, the former CEO of Brooks Brothers, to run the school system of St. Louis.

It soon became apparent that the “turnaround” management team was brought in for union-busting purposes and privatization. It presented to the Board in mid-July a budget plan that would eliminate 2,000 jobs and positions. It proposed to fire some 1,400 full-time workers (food service, secretarial, etc.) by privatizing food service, district transportation and maintenance, eliminating 709 vacant positions, reducing the number of bus routes, and cutting benefits. Twenty-five percent of the district’s full-time positions would be eliminated, along with closing 16 schools.

In early August, the Board adopted major features of this budget proposal by a vote of 5-1 (one not attending) over the objections of many parents and others in the community. The Black Leadership Council, which had originally supported the new slate, has called for a moratorium in school closings.

Mary Armstrong, head of AFT Local 420, has termed the cuts “reckless,” noting that no independent outside authority has verified the management team’s claim that a $7 million shortfall existed in the district’s finances.

The “turnaround” management is proving to be expensive for the Board. Roberti has billed the district almost $285,000 in salary and expenses for the first six weeks of work – easily the most expensive schools chief in the country. Roberti’s firm, Alvarez & Marsal, a New York “corporate turnaround” firm, has a $5 million contract to run St. Louis schools for the next year. Hundreds of thousands of dollars are being spent on public relations. In addition, contracts totaling almost half a million dollars have been awarded to outside consulting and “labor relations” legal firms – a euphemism for union-busting attorneys.

The fightback against the management team’s actions has been broad-based. Hundreds of members of the community have attended Board meetings to voice their objections.

One of the main leaders has been Lizz Brown, a local radio talk-show host, as well as Percy Green, a longtime civil rights activist in St. Louis. They have called for a boycott of the first day of classes by students. The idea is that the state withholds money from the district for each student who does not attend. Last year, the district lost $670,000 by students not attending the first day.

A number of African American churches are making their churches available during the first week of classes for students whose parents do not wish to send them to the regular schools, given the chaotic state of affairs in the school system. Unions, solidly backed by their membership, have also opposed the Board’s actions; Local 420 has also threatened that its members will delay the start of school.

The Communist Party’s Missouri-Kansas district has called for rescinding the cuts and is presenting a program to solve the crisis in the schools.

The author can be reached at