It's a breezy Thursday night, and a large-ish crowd trickles into the basement of St. Elizabeth Academy for the monthly Tower Grove East neighborhood association meeting. Despite this particular group's reputation for a by-the-book, law-and-order meeting style, the 7:30 start time comes and goes while candidates for the St. Louis Public Schools board the only agenda item tonight continue to make their way to the front tables. (In their corner of the cafeteria, they take seats in a section plastered with "Seniors Only" and "Seniors Rule!" posters, seemingly oblivious that they occupy contested real estate.)
Finally, with most of the would-be school saviors assembled near the microphone (except the much-vaunted "Four For Our Future" slate which arrives, minus Missouri History Museum president Robert Archibald, about 45 minutes late), the forum gets underway, with Sister Carla Mae Streeter asking each candidate to tell the audience "who you are, your vision for the school board and how you yourself can contribute to making this vision real." Oh, and you've got three minutes.
As the mic is passed down the row, the candidates offer some distinguishing (if not distinguished) ideas among the expected buzzwords: for example, did you know Bob Volz is vehemently against busing? You do if you've heard him say two words in the last six months (and those two words were likely, "No busing!") Or perhaps five words: "an expensive bunch of baloney." Beyond that, the 77-year-old great-grandfather ("TOO DAMN OLD," reads his own campaign literature) of kids who are currently in the SLPS seems genuinely befuddled as to what the system's problems or possible solutions might be. Even the most generous in the audience seem taken aback at his comment that, "This business of equality between blacks and whites this has already been taken care of in the 1960s."
Two of the candidates, Tom Simpson and then John Patrick Mahoney, take time at the beginning of their remarks to express their opinion that what's really important to keep in mind is Iraq; Mahoney says he prays "every day for the innocent kids who are over there." Mahoney's candidacy offers some interesting possibilities, as he has been on the board for about 18 years, before having been defeated in his last run. As earnest and experienced at board politics as he is, there's something a bit jarring to the crowd about his repeated screaming of, "Get your kicks on...?" slogan, an attempt to elicit the number 66 (his ballot punch number) from the voters. A few mumble in compliance, but no one seems sure of quite how to react.
Mahoney does offer that he would be a full-time board member, "not half-time, part-time or some-time, like some of these candidates who aren't here tonight." Indeed, some of the better-known candidates among them Archibald and former mayor Vince Schoemehl seem to fall into the category of successful people who, because of their success, are asked to do everything and are therefore seemingly impossibly busy.
Those two, along with Darnetta Clinkscale and Ron Jackson, form Mayor Slay's slate of chosen candidates, to whom Civic Progress money and media attention and, theoretically, votes were expected to flow. In fact, the group has a substantial telephone polling and direct mail operation supporting its run, with at least four full-size, full-color, glossy brochures arriving in some neighborhoods urging people's support for the slate. They've garnered the endorsements of the Post-Dispatch and the St. Louis American (whose publisher, Dr. Donald Suggs, participated in the crafting of their platform and serves as treasurer for their separate campaigns). Schoemehl, not for nothing a long-time politician in a town that loves its full-contact politics, is often out front as the group's spokesman, and seems to allow a collective sigh of relief when his first statement of the evening is, "The schools aren't working; everybody knows that." There. Someone said it. The slate has taken a somewhat antiseptic, clinical approach to how they might fix that, however; their talk (easily handed off from one to another, and clearly a well-honed collective message) is all about systems and delivering outcomes and management. It's definitely to their advantage to keep Schoemehl as their point man, because just when the management-speak has reached out to glaze over eyes in the first few rows, he brings it back home in real terms: "Do you really expect these employees to go in and do their best for a school system that can't even return their phone calls? I don't."
School reform-ese is tossed about liberally, of course: Mary Ann McGivern, the nun and social activist who is the first to speak, invokes "accountability" and "community," and is followed in turn by nearly every other candidate. (Less common? Her description of serving on the board as a "sacred trust" and her championing of justice as a guiding principle, which she uses to encompass everything from fair wages to literacy, "a basic right for children.") Less tightly on-message than the other slate, but still sharing obvious affinities, McGivern is one-third of the C.E.E. (Coalition for Excellence in Education) CHANGE group, also including Peter Downs and Antonio French (not in attendance this evening).
In such a crowded field (a total of 17 candidates vying for four slots, divided into 3-year and 4-year terms), the non-famous, non-aggressive, non-eccentric candidates are, of course, the ones who suffer, at least in terms of attracting attention and the microphone. John Oleski, who attended SLPS for elementary and secondary school and has taught for 30 years, is an attractive option because he is an administrator at Mary Institute/Country Day School certainly not someone who needs to take on a volunteer position with the struggling city schools and yet still clearly cares about what's happening in the system. Peter Downs, of the C.E.E. CHANGE slate, seems eminently reasonable, has two children currently in the SLPS, and talks plainly about removing administrative hurdles to people getting their jobs done; he, along with his slate, advocates for a major shift of funds and decision-making into the classroom. Curtis Royston III manages to pack the most words per minute into his allotted time, and none of it sounds crazy: he touches on his own SLPS experience, his children's experience, his work as the 27th ward committeeman and involvement on the system's community education council. He stresses his "well-rounded" resume and wants increased cultural sensitivity to the various ethnic and national groups represented in the city's schools; he also offers his home phone number and the promise that he'll be "glad to have a conversation at any hour of the day." Clinkscale and Jackson, of the mayor's slate, seem content to echo Schoemehl's sentiments, although they each talk about supporting teachers, getting parents involved and so on.
Sitting at long tables in front of rooms full (or more likely, not) of potential voters night after night is surely a draining experience, and the impression one can expect to make in three or five minutes is, of necessity, fleeting. Still, when some of the crowd begins grumbling and demanding specifics beyond "make schools better," many of the candidates seem caught off guard. Of particular interest in the TGE neighborhood is the board's plan for dealing with nearby Roosevelt High School, a sprawling mega-school whose discipline problems spill over into the neighborhood. These neighbors want to know something the candidates can't tell them: what's really going on at Roosevelt? Further, there are clearly many candidates who think such school-specific issues aren't what the school board should spend its time on. The give and take gets somewhat strained at the end of the meeting, but by then, more than two hours have passed, and the assembly is thinning out.
Author's note: Candidates for the school board who were not in attendance at this particular forum were Robert Archibald, Alice Bell, Elizabeth Crowley, David DeVore, Antonio French, Eleanor Gower and John Kintree.
Elections for the St. Louis Public School board are April 8.