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Public gets a chance to respond to city school-closing proposal

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 4, 2009 - The public will have its say tonight on a consultant's controversial recommendations that at least 28 city schools be closed. The recommendations come from MGT of America Inc., the firm hired by the Special Administrative Board, which is trying to cut school system expenses and close a $36 million budget hole.

The last time a city School Board put large numbers of buildings on the chopping block, the outcry was loud, bitter and persistent. This time, however, the response has been more muted, with the debate more quietly focused so far on two broad issues:

  • Flaws in the consultant's study and lack of hard answers about how the district would accommodate children displaced by the proposed changes.
  • Concerns that some recommendations won't safeguard historic school buildings and that valuable property would be almost literally given away.

Those issues and perhaps plenty of others involving students and school system employees are certain to be brought into sharp focus at tonight's hearing beginning at 6 p.m. at Roosevelt High School, 3230 Hartford St.
A second hearing is set for Saturday, starting at 10 a.m. at Vashon High School, 3035 Cass Avenue.

So why does there seem to be less smoke and fire -- at least so far -- over the latest school closing recommendations compared to those in 2003? Former School Board members Ron Jackson and Bill Purdy were on different sides of the debate in 2003, but when asked why the school closings created so much outrage in 2003, both men seemed unified in at least one answer: Lizz Brown, then a radio talk show host who went off the air after her station was sold.

Jackson and Purdy, of course, see the role of Brown differently. To Purdy, Brown deserves praise for using her show to give ordinary St. Louisans a way to discuss school board issues that he says weren't being aired or printed by most other media. Jackson, however, said critics like Brown had hidden agendas and that Brown's show sidetracked efforts for sensible public discussion about how to build a better city school system.

In any case, both men agree that the current report has plenty of flaws.

Like some of the voices that will be heard tonight, Purdy says many of the consultant's recommendations make no sense. Purdy says some of the recommendations suggested the consultants knew little about city school buildings. He's at a loss to explain how or why the consultants thought anyone could squeeze the Gateway Institute of Techonlogy school into much smaller space at McKinley Classical Junior Academy.

He wonders if the consultants even bothered to peek into Gateway or ask how its equipment, including an aircraft hangar and machine shops, could be accommodated in a building the size of McKinley. Jackson voiced the same concern.

"The combining of facilities is unclear to me," Jackson says. "There seems to be no real public input into this."

Public questions like these about an MGT report may seem ironic -- especially because MGT markets itself as helping organizations take the guesswork out of reorganzation and meet public expectations. So far, however, the consultant's recommendations seem to have generated only confusion and uncertainty.

Just as Purdy describes as unworkable the proposal to shift Gateway Tech to McKinley, he says the recommendations to move several other schools to other buildings are equally unrealistic, including the proposal to shift McKinley to Humboldt, and the suggestion that the Cleveland ROTC program be moved to Vashon.

He also questions the lack of discussion about how the district would acquire land for new school construction or pay for the two new elementary schools in the recommendations. Moreover, he wonders about the recommendation to close schools in which the public has invested in air conditioning.

Jackson fears that this latest round of closing schools amounts to a lost opportunity to bring the community together.

He says, "I was hoping they'd use this opportunity to reform the district," such as starting a communitywide discussion of how to replace the old city-county desegregation model that focused on magnet schools.

"I think that discussion could have created some excitement," Jackson says.

The last area where some think the consultants are off the mark is historic buildings. One independent website, Vanishing STL, operated by Paul Hohmann, who identifies himself as an architect, says MGT is "missing the boat" on re-using historic schools. He notes that MGT is suggesting the construction of two new elementary schools instead of renovating two historic buildings. He says the renovation route would be cheaper. Like Purdy, Hohmann also decries the implications that groups, even private ones, might be allowed to acquire public buildings on the cheap.

The Landmarks Association of St. Louis also has urged the Special Administrative Board to follow strict guidelines to protect buildings designed by district architects, such as August Kirchner and William B. Ittner.

The MGT says historic preservation is important, "but not without some qualifiers." Its report says the district would have to address safety issues, such as lead paint and asbestos, for some of these buildings. It adds that when and if these buildings are renovated, funds would need to be found to make sure the buildings are kept up to standard.

Robert Joiner has carved a niche in providing informed reporting about a range of medical issues. He won a Dennis A. Hunt Journalism Award for the Beacon’s "Worlds Apart" series on health-care disparities. His journalism experience includes working at the St. Louis American and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where he was a beat reporter, wire editor, editorial writer, columnist, and member of the Washington bureau.