Rallies held for, against boycott of St. Louis schools' start

Monday, September 8, 2003

ST. LOUIS -- St. Louisans were bracing for today's opening day of school amid the possibility of a boycott by those opposed to an interim management team's cost-cutting measures.

On Sunday, rallies were held for both sides of the debate -- those urging students to attend class and those urging them to stay away.

Alvarez & Marsal, the New York-based turnaround management firm, has identified first-day attendance as a key measure of success. In the past, the first day of school in the district has been poorly attended. Last year, one in four students did not show.

But the management team and the school board have come under fire by some because of decisions to close 16 schools -- many of them in predominantly black neighborhoods -- and lay off 1,400 workers. Officials with Alvarez & Marsal have said the moves were necessary to help eliminate a $90 million debt.

On Sunday morning, interim superintendent William Roberti spoke from the pulpit of Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Church and stressed the importance of children attending the first day of school.

"We want your children, your grandchildren, your family, your friends' children, to be at school the first day," he said.

"The real issue is education. It's your children. It's the outcome. It's closing the achievement gap here."

Later Sunday, Democratic presidential candidate and activist Al Sharpton was among those pushing for a boycott during a rally in the city's midtown area.

"It's the school system against us," Sharpton said. "If you're closing 16 schools, you're boycotting us." He was also scheduled to lead a gathering at 6 a.m. today for parents keeping their children out of school.

Some boycott organizers say they will urge students to stay away from school until the closed school buildings are reopened and the interim management team is fired.

Even outside the church where Roberti spoke, demonstrators carried signs and complained about the money -- $5 million -- the district is paying the interim management team.

The school district's drive to counter the boycott has been coordinated by public relations giant Fleishman-Hillard. The firm's fees, at least $80,000, are being paid by the business group Civic Progress. Fleishman's strategy includes a series of automated calls targeting city students and parents. The automated calls carried the voices of people such as Rams wide receiver Isaac Bruce and St. Lunatics rapper Murphy Lee.

Privately, school officials say they are more concerned about whether books are delivered and schools are clean than a boycott. A memo sent to principals last week warned that "several schools are still in deplorable condition and will not be safe or clean for the start of school."

Roberti disagreed, though he said there was room for improvement.

"These schools are safe," he said in his speech. "They're clean. They're not perfect. I was out yesterday, visiting schools, and we've got four or five we're still not happy with.

"They'll be ready when we open school."

The Rev. Sylvester Laudermill Jr., pastor at St. Peter's A.M.E. Church, said if parents don't feel comfortable sending their children to school, his and other churches will look after them during the day until Sept. 17. Laudermill said he expects more than 400 children and many volunteers.

The schools' largest union, American Federation of Teachers Local 420 -- which once vowed that school would be delayed if budget cuts were approved -- has backed down, encouraging students and teachers to attend the first day.

Last week, Gov. Holden wrote St. Louis School Board members with concerns that their action had prompted a boycott, which, he said, "reflects an alarming tension that must be resolved."

Many residents, teachers and students are hoping for a good turnout. Dozens of volunteers with Teach for America, which places recent college graduates in urban schools, knocked on doors Saturday, asking people to send their children to school.

At Vashon High School, which had an attendance rate of just 37 percent on the first day of school last year, principal Floyd Irons has recruited students with good grades to call their friends and encourage them to show.

"It's very important to be at school on the first day," said Dorothy Robinson, a senior at Vashon. "Don't believe everything you hear -- people are out there to scare you, not to get you an education."

Negotiators for the management team and teachers reached agreement on a tentative contract late Saturday. The one-year agreement calls for no change in teachers' salaries but allows the salary issue to be reopened if the district's financial situation improves.Teachers are expected to vote this week on whether to approve the contract.

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