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Nov 2003 / church and state :: email this story to a friend

Schools in the Balance
By Amanda E. Doyle

The basement of St. Paul A.M.E. Church smells distinctly of fresh paint, but it doesn't seem to be bothering the noisy crowd of a bit more than a hundred that has gathered, crammed into tight rows of metal folding chairs and abuzz at the events to come — a regular Thursday night meeting of "The Community," (the somewhat strident activist patchwork of church folk, harried parents and Greens who've rallied behind the anti-school board cries of WGNU host Lizz Brown), but this one featuring the school board itself, ready to face the questions and accusations of a hostile audience. Before the official start, a knot of people gathers around a standard-issue, three-panel science fair display board, featuring enlarged color photographs of protestors "going to Schoemehl house for a Block Party!"

After an opening prayer, (during which the shrewdness of choosing a name for the group is evident, when the minister intones that "surely this community (Community?) is doing thy holy will"), Brown establishes herself as the mistress of ceremonies. Many of these are her people, regular listeners to the Morning Wake-Up Call show. The gentleman next to me whispers, "Ya gotta get in touch with me," under his breath, a close-enough rendering of one of her signature lines. He eyes me sideways for a minute (I stand out as one of a handful of white people in the room) before asking, "What neighborhood are you from?"

"Tower Grove, near Grand and Arsenal," I answer. "I've been hearing a lot about what's happening at these meetings and I just wanted to see for myself."

"Me, too!" he replies. "I'm from the east side; first time for me."

The first part of the meeting is devoted to an update on the condition (still serious) of "baby Rick," a 9-year-old student at Mitchell School who was gravely injured in a fall at school in late October. Brown says she's just come from being at the hospital with his family, and the words she's heard are not good: the family is struggling, financially now, as well as emotionally. St. Paul's shining collection plates are pressed into service to take up money for the child's family. While the plates circulate, Brown hits her stride, telling the crowd that "this is exactly what we said would happen if they took away teacher's aides and overcrowded the schools ... it's just part of an ongoing tragedy of how much decisions made by the school board have messed up families and people's lives." More than $500 is raised (after a few extra bucks were passed forward when the first count yielded $497), amidst much grumbling about the callous board of the St. Louis Public Schools.

It's hard to imagine that any member of the school board in her right mind would want to step out here now. As the tension rises, and Brown and other meeting organizers confab about various papers, finally someone gives voice to the question on everyone's mind: "When is the school board gonna be here?"

Brown looks up as though confused, asks to have the question repeated and then says, almost offhandedly, "Oh, no. I am so sorry. They're not gonna be here tonight."

Conversation instantly erupts all over the basement, with more than a few "Of courses" rising above the din. Whether she really forgot to tell them or was holding her most potent ammunition for this moment, Brown has the audience primed for outrage now.

George Cotton, another organizer of this loose coalition, takes over to discuss the sequence of events. He maintains that members of the school board, led by Ron Jackson, had "committed to us that they were going to be here." Cotton re-confirmed, he says, several times by e-mail and phone, "because we realized that they had shown numerous times that they could not be trusted. And now you see how deceitful they were in not coming here tonight."

All hell has pretty much broken loose. After a bit more background from Cotton, he exhorts his audience to unleash a tidal wave of outcry on members of the school board. "Flood their e-mail, load up their telephone answering systems," he advises. Those assignments are made more urgent when he reads off the work and home e-mail addresses and cell phone numbers for board president Darnetta Clinkscale and member Ron Jackson. Then, Cotton pauses dramatically and says, "I got one more number I know you would love to have." Pause. "Bill Roberti's cell phone number is ..." Squeals and laughter ripple across the room, as the superintendent is a particular target of the group's scorn. A woman in the back dials the number right then, puts the line on speakerphone and when she reaches Roberti's voicemail, yells, "You better leave my city!" before hanging up.

Slumber-party hijinks notwithstanding, these are obviously people in distress. People who want the basics — to be able to send their kids to a school that is at least minimally safe and providing a passable education — wonder if they're getting their end of the social bargain. A few in the audience who say they are SLPS teachers tell anecdotes of high-schoolers relieving themselves in hallways because bathrooms aren't working. (That revelation prompts Brown to declare, "We are at war.")

Unfortunately, adding to the despair is an essentially closed communication loop. Though the school board and superintendent Roberti (and, by extension, his turnaround firm doing the district's administrative work) argue that things are, on balance, better all the time and that many of SLPS' problems will be solved through their process, they've done a fairly horrid job of saying that, much less saying it convincingly, to the public. Failing to show up on this night, for whatever reason, is a blunder beyond reason. Even if "The Community" actually represents the minority of opinion on St. Louis school reform, as conventional wisdom would indicate, they're speaking loudly, clearly ... and unchallenged.

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