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City schools superintendent asks for public input

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 10, 2011 - After completing his slideshow presentation of the proposed budget for the St. Louis Public Schools for the coming academic year, Superintendent Kelvin Adams told the group assembled in an auditorium at Vashon High School Monday night:

"At this point, I'd like to shut up and listen."

His audience had a lot to say and, not surprisingly, much of it was about money.

As proposed last month to the district's Special Administrative Board, the city schools would have a budget of $272.8 million, including a reserve of $3.0 million. The plan includes a reduction of 171 positions, many of which would come with retirements or other voluntary departures. Three schools would close, though their buildings would remain open because they currently share their space with other schools.

One of the big budgeting changes that Adams outlined last month was a shift in how money would be allocated to schools. Instead of dividing the funds up by enrollment and the size of the staff, as in the past, the district would allocate a certain amount of money to each school, and the principals would then determine how they want to spend it.

In response to questions, Adams said details of the plan are still being ironed out, but he wants to put the burden of the decisions with the people who know the situation best.

"I'm asking the principals to do what I've had to do for the last two and a half years," the superintendent said. "You look at your budget, and you determine how you can make your program work. It's tough. It's a real challenge."

The job is made tougher, he added, because of declining enrollment in the city schools -- from more than 32,000 in the 2006-07 school year to a projected 23,000 next year. Because state funds, which make up a big part of the system's budget, are doled out based on enrollment and attendance, budgets are getting leaner each year.

"If some of the principals could have the money they would have gotten just two years ago," Adams said, "they'd be jumping up and down."

Adams said the principals will go through several rounds of planning to make sure their budgets will be able to cover the programs they want their students to have. In the case of magnet schools, which are built around specialty subjects or themes, it won't always be easy to cover the basics and also pay for the extras.

"Magnet schools, like all of the schools, took some hits," Adams said.

Adams also pointed out the difference between amounts of money being equal and being equitable. Equal, he said, means everyone gets the same; equitable means everyone is allocated the amount needed to get their particular job done.

"There isn't an easy answer to these questions," he said. "We try to be as equitable as we can with the dollars we have."

One part of the staff reductions that got special attention during the question-and-answer session is the elimination of 20 librarian jobs. Adams noted that "I didn't cut any librarians. The principals looked at their budgets and told me what staff they needed."

But he acknowledged the importance of libraries and said he would be meeting with selected principals to determine what adjustments may be made, along with considering greater use of technology such as e-books and services like the city public library system.

David Jackson, a member of the elected school board, asked why the St. Louis Public Schools would be sponsoring a charter school, possibly at Sumner High School in the 2012-13 school year. He said that such a move would cost the district money, but Adams said that wasn't true, because state money follows students wherever they enroll, so long as it's a public school, as a charter would be.

"We're not talking about dollars leaving the St. Louis Public Schools," he said. "We're talking about dollars staying with the St. Louis Public Schools. Not one single dollar would leave the district."

The plan to close one of the three schools on the hit list, Big Picture High School, brought criticism from two teachers at the school who were in the audience but did not ask questions of Adams. In interviews before the session began, Kewana Smith-Bell and Don Leisman said they didn't understand why Big Picture, which is only four years old, had been singled out for closure.

But they didn't think they would be able to change Adams' mind about the issue.

"I think it's a done deal," Smith-Bell said. "Basically, we're here to support our students. That's our main concern. They've been shifted around enough."

She noted that students at the two other schools to be closed would be sent to specific places -- from Bunche to Compton Drew and from Stevens to Cole, L'Ouverture and Yeatman. But the 123 students at Big Picture would be "reassigned to magnet, choice, neighborhood and comprehensive schools," according to the plan outlined by Adams.

She said the school has a 98 percent graduation rate, and many of the students manage to get real-world experience through internships. "The school has been doing so well," Smith-Bell said. "It's a shame to break it up."

Leisman, a special education teacher at Big Picture, also was disappointed at the plan, but he said he wasn't surprised that some schools would be closed, given the drop in enrollment.

"With so many schools going unused," he said, "I'm surprised that five, 10, 15 schools aren't being closed."

Besides Monday night's session, anyone who wants to make a comment about the budget plan can do so online at the school district's website. The SAB plans to vote on the budget proposal at its meeting on May 26

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.