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School closings, personnel cuts proposed to cut $57.5 million city school deficit

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 16, 2010 - The administration of the St. Louis Public Schools wants to wipe out a projected deficit of $57.5 million next year by closing six schools, eliminating 490 jobs, cutting the salaries and imposing furloughs on the employees who remain and taking other measures presented to the Special Administrative Board Thursday night. (Click here to read an earlier story from the Beacon.)

If the board approves the moves at its meeting April 29, the school system would turn around from a deficit expected to be $20.3 million at the end of the current school year to a slight surplus.

At a standing-room-only meeting at the district's headquarters downtown, Superintendent Kelvin Adams told the three-member SAB that the proposed cuts were chosen to "put the schools in the best possible position to support schools and students and meet our overarching goal of regaining accreditation."

Above all, he said, the cuts were made with the students in mind. "In almost every single case," Adams said, "we have kept the classroom sacred."

The schools targeted for closure are:

  • Gallaudet, whose 42 hearing-impaired students would be offered spots at a variety of schools, including Mullanphy, Ames, McKinley and Gateway Institute of Technology.
  • Bunche Middle, whose international studies program would be relocated to Soldan International Studies High School; its curriculum would encompass students in grades 7-12.
  • Cleveland Naval Junior ROTC, which would move to the International Welcome School site at Central Visual and Performing Arts High School.
  • Alternative Education South at Lyon, which would move to Stevens Middle School.
  • Fresh Start Academy at Turner, which would be relocated to Sumner High School.
  • Ford Branch-After School Program site, which would close. Students would continue to attend Ford Elementary School.

The International Welcome School would be relocated to a new site that has not yet been determined.

Job cuts, furloughs proposed


Students at the six affected schools total about 990, Adams said. With the projected cuts, student-teacher ratios would increase from the current 13.5 to 1 to 16.2 to 1, which the superintendent noted remains below the state ratio of 17 to 1.

The school closings would be a small part of the savings needed to close the budget gap, about $800,000. A much larger chunk of the deficit, $33.8 million, would be erased by the elimination of 490 positions, including 226 classroom teachers, 80 substitute teachers, 130 school support staff, 24 administrators and 30 members of the central office staff.

Adams said that the district would try to cut those jobs through a one-time early retirement incentive offer, attrition, releasing staff who are not highly qualified and other means. Layoffs would be considered only if those other options do not bring the required reductions, he said.

Other savings outlined by Adams include $8.5 million from bonds, pensions and hold-harmless funds from the state; $8 million from line-item reductions at central office; $4.5 million from salary cuts and furloughs; $1.5 million from the desegregation and special education programs; and $500,000 from energy management savings.

In addition to the budget reductions, Adams also detailed schools that would face changes under school improvement grants  from Washington that were announced earlier this week. Schools that can use that money have to follow one of four models for raising student achievement.

Schools that would use the turnaround model, which includes replacing the principal and rehiring no more than 50 percent of the staff, would be Columbia, Hamilton, Mann, Sigel and Vashon.

Schools using the restart model, which would be converted to charter schools operated by the district or an outside organization, would be Ashland, Central VPA, Sumner and Walbridge.

The school in the closure model would be Bunche, as detailed in the budget cuts.

Included in the transformation model, where one of several strategies would be followed, would be Carr Lane, Gateway Middle, Fanning, Jefferson, L'Ouverture, Long, Langston, Stevens, Yeatman, Dunbar and Roosevelt.

The district will be able to receive between $50,000 and $2 million a school to put the change models into place. The grants will be awarded this summer.

From surplus to deficit

Noting the factors that had prompted the deficit -- declining enrollment, an increasing numbers of city students attending charter schools, flat revenue from sales and property taxes and reduced state aid -- Adams said that St. Louis is not alone in the changes that must be made. He said cities like Kansas City, Indianapolis, Des Moines, Milwaukee and others are undergoing similar transformations.

He singled out charter schools as one particular area where the city system has been hurt because as more students sign up to attend them, "dollars move when students move."

To help make sure estimates and operations are more realistic in the future, Adams said plans will be made based on actual attendance, not just the number of students who are enrolled, and changes in the middle of the upcoming school year may be made if fewer students are actually in class than anticipated.

Adams praised the work of his administrative team and the cooperation of the teachers union in putting the proposals together. Byron Clemens, first vice president of the union, told the board that such cooperation "is a two-way street," and teachers expect to be heard by the board as the process proceeds.

Commenting after Adams' presentation, SAB head Rick Sullivan acknowledged that the deficit occurred because the board had to make choices that may not have been the best financially. "We did make a variety of decisions that were right for the kids but wrong for the budget," Sullivan said.

Now, he added, "we've got to put this budget back in balance for the long term for this district to have any chances of succeeding."

SAB member Richard Gaines said it was time for the district to aggressively pursue bringing children into the system, adding: "We will now be fighting back."

After the presentation, Sullivan said Adams' proposals show that "people understand we have huge challenges. Because the process has been open, we can reach out to groups of people who will see these are the best options available to the St. Louis Public Schools."

He said there are likely to be refinements made before the board votes on the plan in two weeks.

Peter Downs, who heads the elected school board, said that in part, the SAB has had to deal with "a manufactured crisis," noting that it had a budget surplus when it took over.

"None of this is Adams' fault," Downs said. "Adams is probably dealing with the hand he was dealt as best he can."

He also questioned some of the savings projections, calling them "magic numbers" that have been floated in the past but never turned out to be real, such as the elimination of substitute teaching positions.

Downs questions whether the conversion of Sumner and others to charter schools will work, but he noted that the impetus for the change comes from Washington.

"The Obama administration is pushing the idea based on policies that have no empirical basis whatsoever," he said. "The federal government wants to look like it's doing something rather than doing something that works."

Asked how the proposed budget cuts would be different if the elected board had been working with Adams and the SAB, Downs hesitated, then replied:

"I don't know that we know enough to be able to say."

Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.