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Now they tell us! Post-Dispatch failed to uncover the plans of the mayor's slate to privatize St. Louis public schools.

The board will solicit proposals for 'a firm, an individual or a collaborative team of firms' to serve as interim superintendent for the district. The move leaves open the possibility that the district could be run by a management firm with a chief executive officer who will serve in the role of superintendent."

St. Louis Post-Dispatch, April 23, 2003

The news broke in print on a Wednesday morning, two full weeks after the April 8 elections. Driven by four amalgamated and newly sworn members of the St. Louis Board of Education, a motion was passed the previous evening fundamentally to shift the power dynamics within the troubled school district.

At its heart, the plan is simplicity defined: outgoing Superintendent Cleveland Hammonds Jr. (retired as of June 30) is to be replaced by Alvarez & Marsal, a New York-based turnaround management consulting firm. The company, led in its local effort by former clothier William V. "Bill" Roberti, will earn $5 million to "fix" the perennially underachieving district.

Opponents argue that the privatization of a public school system is patently un-American, not to mention Machiavellian; others say draconian measures are long overdue. Beyond dispute, however, is the notion that public institutions should not be subjected to systematic upheaval without vigorous debate ahead of time-particularly during an election cycle.

Sadly, that debate never took place on the pages of the city's only daily newspaper. Through nearly 12 weeks of campaign coverage in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch -- including eight news stories and two gushing editorials--the idea of privatizing the school system was never mentioned.

Not once.

Even on April 23, one senses that the Post editors still didn't get it. The story gives only the scantest attention to the "turnaround firm" proposal (53 words out of 440 written), while the headline, too, plays down the development, phlegmatically informing us: "New School Board Acts Promptly."

Indeed, the story's author, Post writer Jake Wagman, shows more interest in the histrionic rants of board member Rochelle Moore than the motion itself. Wagman makes entertaining use of Moore's gritty repertoire, including such thoughtful policy gems as, "I am going to give you what for."

In his defense, Wagman was not alone in missing the point. During the school board race virtually every media source in town, including the St. Louis American, chose to focus on colorful personalities and obscure campaign finance laws rather than the under-lying issues. Although the Post described the contest as "watershed," and "one of the most important school board elections in the city's history," the paper chose to cover the race pedantically, placing most of its emphasis on political analysis and campaign finance laws.

Also in Wagman's defense is the fact that the new board majority played its cards close to the vest.

"No school system had ever (privatized) before. So, that wasn't on the table," Wagman says. "If they knew they were going to do the turnaround firm the whole time, they certainly didn't make that clear."

Cluttered race.

cluttered coverage

With 18 candidates on the ballot, journalists certainly faced a challenge covering the election. Some hopefuls, like Curtis Royston III, a Democratic committeeman from the 27th ward, campaigned independently and enjoyed a modest political base entering the contest. Other candidates, like John Mahoney, had earlier served on the board. Some were simply long-shot unknowns with no clear agenda.

But the race clarified substantially after New Year's. On Jan. 15, with 11 candidates already filed, a coalition organized by Mayor Francis Slay selected four candidates for its endorsement. With the full weight of the mayor's office behind the slate, this development essentially sealed the election.

But in the Post's coverage the next day, little is reported about Slay's choices, other than their names: former Mayor Vincent Schoemehl Jr; Ronald L. Jackson, assistant director of St. Louis For Kids; Robert Archibald, president of the Missouri Historical Society; and M. Darnetta Clinkscale, director of patient care at Barnes-Jewish Hospital.

"We chose four excellent candidates who endorsed our platform to work together to dramatically improve the schools," Slay said in a prepared statement.

A curious reader will logically ask what platform is Slay referring to? What are its essential goals? How does the slate plan to get there? The Post provides no answers. Rather, reporters Carolyn Bower and Jo Mannies spend most of the article giving a complaining voice to those who were not selected. Even the name of Slay's coalition goes unreported. Not until Feb. 23 do we read the name St. Louis Education Coalition (SLEC).

Meanwhile, it was hard to distinguish editorial from news coverage in the St. Louis American. From late January through the election the paper ran enthusiastic headlines and photos endorsing the Slay team above the masthead. The week of the election, the paper ran pictures of Jackson and Archibald on its front page with the headline, "Choosing CEO #1 Job for New School Board."

Perhaps the American has good reason to be biased: the mayor's effort to put together a slate was sponsored by publisher Donald Suggs in September 2002.

Calls and e-mails made by SJR to St. Louis American City Editor Alvin Reid were not returned--nor were numerous calls to the new board members.

Wagman, on Feb. 23, wrote 1,057 words detailing the "colorful" character of many of the candidates. We learn, for example, that Robert A. Volz has a penchant for bow ties. Candidate Alice Bell tellingly reveals, "(I do) not have lots of money."

All well and good. But with a field so large, editorial judgment suggests narrowing the focus of coverage to those candidates with a likely chance of victory. The article, however, goes the opposite direction--not a single scrap of information about the Slay team's platform, goals or educational philosophy is revealed. Surely it was obvious to Wagman and his editors that Schoemehl, et al, were far more likely to win than Volz and his bowties.

In the same issue, Jo Mannies, a political columnist, meticulously covers the legalistic aspects of the race: state laws concerning joint campaigns, name placement on the ballot and various endorsements garnered by the candidates from ward organizations. Technically, Mannies' column qualifies as a school board story, but nothing substantive is revealed about the slate's agenda.

On March 11, Wagman spends 700 words bemoaning the alleged lack of interest among voters in the school board race. The campaign "so far has been a low-key, low-budget affair," he declares. There is no mention of privatization or corporate turnaround firms.

In Wagman and Carolyn Bower's roundup on area school board races (Sunday, March 16), the reporters rely heavily on comments by Donald R. McAdams, director of the Houston-based Center for Reform of School Systems. McAdams stressed the importance of electing the candidate who "enhances the reputation of the board" rather than candidates seeking broad seats to advance their political ambitions. "The person who understands big systems and politics is much better-prepared," McAdams told the reporters.

"When it comes to political acumen," wrote Wagman and Bower, "nobody on the crowded St. Louis School Board ballot--and perhaps ballots across the region--compares to Vincent C. Schoemehl Jr." The reporters were stating a fact, but in the context of the arguments made by McAdams, the statement is akin to an endorsement.

Meanwhile, the Post's editorial page gushed with enthusiasm for Slay's team, calling Slay's platform "a good one," focused on "academic excellence, high-quality teachers and technology that boost the quality of instruction, along with better planning, budgeting and accounting controls."

Crossing the line into shameless political sycophancy, the paper says a vote for the mayor's candidates is an "investment in a future in which every child has a chance to succeed," one in which "every teacher is supported" and "every principal articulates a clear message of high expectations to students."

Why no mention of a corporate turnaround firm running the district at a cost 25 times higher than Hammonds' last salary? The answer, as Wagman now concedes, is that Post editors had no idea such a proposal was on the table.

At forums and in its campaign literature, an opposing slate put together by board member Amy Hilgemann proposed replacing Hammonds with someone with management expertise, probably a non-educator. The Slay candidates largely agreed on the need to hire a temporary manager, but at the first board meeting after the election, it became clear that they had a much more controversial and expensive approach in mind.

Christine Bertelson, editorial page editor at the Post is unapologetic. Citing the relative cohesion of the "Four for Our Future" candidates, she says, "Although they certainly were perceived as Francis' candidates, they presented themselves more united and coming from the community, especially on the north side."

Did the Post have its mind made up before it interviewed the candidates? "That's crap. And you can quote me on that," Bertelson said.

At last, on March 31, Wagman writes an article headlined, "Picking superintendent is key issue. He discusses three possible choices for the new school board: a prominent educator, a nontraditional leader from business or the military, or "the likely proposition ... a hatchet man or woman who will have a short stay and quick impact." Wagman calls the third option "likely" because Archibald. and Schoemehi had advocated it, but there is no reference to an outside firm.

On April 3, Wagman writes his last story before the election. In the last paragraph of a long story (911 words), Schoemehl says he would consider allowing selected, persistently failing schools to be managed by a for-profit company. "If we can't fix certain schools or certain situations," Schoemehl says, "I'm open to any solution."

This cryptic statement--buried in the last sentence in the last paragraph of the last campaign story--is the only known reference on the pages of the Post regarding privatization.

Invisible platforms, hidden meetings.

Those who defend the winning candidates, along with the Post s murky coverage of the campaign, insist that the possibility of hiring an interim superintendent-perhaps drawn from the ranks of corporate or military leaders--was discussed many times by many candidates. This is a fact. But the inference readers must draw from the term interim superintendent--the dreaded "hatchet man or woman"--is clear, i.e., that an individual will be selected.

The argument that an interim superintendent hired from the corporate world (or anywhere else) is synonymous with a for-profit corporation is ludicrous. As Wagman himself says: "We had done stories saying that (hiring an individual from the business community) was keeping with a pattern of other major urban school districts to hire non-traditional superintendents. We thought they were going to follow this mode and hire a non-traditional superintendent. We had no idea how non-traditional they were going to go."

Translation: the Post--and therefore voters--had no real understanding of the sweeping approach about to be taken by the subsequent winners.

Granted, Slay's candidates did little to help the media during the race. The slate said little about specific proposals in its campaign literature. One leaflet prepared and mailed out by SLEC on behalf of the candidates warned voters that "time is running out" to "take back our school board." Another flyer for the Slay team promised improved safety "by returning discipline to the St. Louis classrooms" and "by helping our students build character."

The literature made no reference at all to privatizing services or bringing in an outside management firm. Furthermore, members of the slate who sat down with the Post editorial board did not offer any hints of privatization. "We did not talk to the Post specifically about that prior to the election," Board President Clinkscale remembers. "We talked about change artists and that sort of thing."

Predictably, Schoemehl and his three running mates cruised to victory, garnering a combined 54,830 votes to 47,764 for the remaining 14 candidates. Volz and his bowties received 1,831 votes.

Yet even after the election, when it was clear the new board would be moving swiftly to institute a radical, never-before-tried agenda, Wagman and his editors were slow to catch the news. Nowhere is that more obvious than in the coverage of two clandestine board meetings reported by the Post.

On April 19, Wagman reports that the newly elected members had met in secret twice, prior to being sworn in, in order to discuss board business. The story degenerates into a quibbling debate over whether the meetings were a violation of the Missouri Sunshine Law in deed or in spirit.

But, significantly, Wagman makes no attempt to report what was actually discussed at the secret meetings. Typical of the Post's coverage throughout the entire campaign, he is far more interested in reporting the technical violations of the gathering--in short, the political processes--rather than the meaningful content of what took place.

It should be said that Wagman is a skilled and energetic young reporter, one who, perhaps, ran aground of a seasoned and highly sophisticated political machine. "My feeling was that the idea of hiring the turnaround firm came a lot from Schoemehl," Wagman says now. "It's tough to say whether he knew the whole time he was going to do this, or this is something that occurred to him."

Veteran observers of the St. Louis political scene throw their vote toward the latter. In any event, Wagman isn't sure he could have done anything differently. "I think we were plenty tough," he says. "I think I did a good job."

Robert Joiner, a member of the Post's editorial board, now says (a bit late) that he is suspicious of the mayor's accumulated powers and doesn't put "a lot of credence" in what Slay says. He is worried that the new school board may not be adequately involving "broad segments of the community" in its plans.

If only those concerns had been raised prior to the election.

Dan Hellinger is professor of political science at Webster University.

Bob Schaper is a St. Louis free-lance writer.
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Author:Hellinger, Dan; Schaper, Bob
Publication:St. Louis Journalism Review
Geographic Code:1U4MO
Date:Jul 1, 2003
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