This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: With its newly gained provisional accreditation, the St. Louis Public Schools needs to cut spending and build up a fund balance, and Superintendent Kelvin Adams says one way to save money is to close four schools and trim other programs.
But students at one of the schools targeted for closing, Cleveland Naval Junior ROTC, made what Adams called “passionate” comments at Wednesday night’s meeting of the Special Administrative Board, calling their school a successful, special place that should stay open.
Cleveland managed to escape the chopping block four years ago. Will it be able to do so again? One member of the three-person SAB, Richard Gaines, told its supporters at the jam-packed meeting that he is ready to listen to well-reasoned arguments and viable alternatives.
“I don’t want you leaving here thinking everything has been resolved,” Gaines said.
“You can help us. You already have done the first part. You have made your school an outstanding school…. Can you turn this around? I don’t know. You have a very serious problem that needs to be addressed.”
In all, Adams recommended that the SAB approve savings of $8.4 million for the 2013-14 school year, about the same size as the projected fund balance. Besides the school and program closings and reductions, the cuts would come from staffing reductions, early retirements, and other efficiencies.
He also recommended increased spending to open a bio-medical high school for $502,000 and for a new class schedule that would allow teens to sleep a little later – a move designed to increase their academic achievement but one that would require the addition of 94 buses and a cost increase of $5.7 million.
The SAB is expected to vote on the budget at its next scheduled meeting on March 14. Before that time, public forums to gain feedback on Adams’ recommendations will be held this Saturday, at Vashon High School from 10 a.m. to noon and at Central Visual and Performing Arts Academy from 12:30 p.m. to 2:30 p.m.
In addition, public comment may be posted on the district’s website or by calling and leaving a recorded message at (314) 345-4636.
Adams and members of the SAB emphasized that the public comments will be reviewed and considered before any decisions are made.
In his presentation, Adams detailed the challenges facing the district, ones that are unique to the situation in St. Louis and those that are affecting districts elsewhere.
He noted that until the district achieved its provisional accreditation last year, it had to spend every dollar it could to bring the city schools up to the standards where they could shed the unaccredited label that brought the SAB into existence back in 2007.
Now, he said, as the district pushes to gain full accreditation, it must build a fund balance for use in emergencies and at the same time continue to operate with a balanced budget.
That situation is made more difficult by several factors:
- a falling assessed valuation for city property, bringing in less local money;
- the continued failure of Missouri to fund its state aid formula fully;
- and the specter of less money from Washington because of the ongoing fiscal stalemate.
Adams said that the system also has to deal with increasing benefit and retirement costs, more spending on security, implementation of common core standards for students and other mandates.
He noted that local districts such as Parkway, Clayton and Rockwood have all had to cut costs and work to avoid deficits, and large districts like Philadelphia have been forced to close dozens of schools and lay off many teachers and other personnel.
Challenges to which he paid particular attention are the rising costs of retirement benefits, which are almost 10 percent of the district’s $287 million operating budget, and items such as a requirement to provide taxi transportation for homeless students.
At the same time, he said, many of the district’s buildings are being operated with far fewer students than they can handle, particularly high schools. In all, 21 schools, including seven high schools, use less than 60 percent of their available capacity but still require the same level of operating costs.
“We can’t turn off anything,” Adams said. “We still need to have all of the support needed to keep the buildings open.”
To meet the financial challenges, he recommended closure of:
- Cleveland NJROTC at 4939 Kemper, with no ninth graders accepted in the fall but current students being allowed to complete the program. He said the move would save $347,000
- Sherman Elementary at 3942 Flad, with boundaries redrawn so students would attend nearby schools such as Mann, Adams, Shenandoah or Hogden. The closure would save $298,000, with a one-time decommissioning cost of $55,000.
- L’Ouverture Middle at 3021 Hickory, with incoming seventh graders assigned to other middle schools based on boundary assignments. Cost savings would be $519,000, with a one-time closing cost of $65,000.
- The Fresh Start South program, which would be moved to Sumner so the Meda P building at 2030 S. Vandeventer would be closed at a cost savings of $325,000, with a one-time closing cost of $75,000.
- Move the Multiple Pathways Alternative School to Beaumont, at 3836 Natural Bridge, which he said has better facilities than Stevens Middle, where the program is now. Cost savings are estimated at $114,000.
- Reduce the 11th grade at Beaumont, with only 12th grade remaining for the next school year. The reduced staff would result in a cost savings of $347,000.
The bio-medical high school, which has already been approved by the SAB, would open at Soldan, McKinley or Central high schools, with a target enrollment of 75 ninth graders in the fall. Long term, it could move to a central corridor location near Washington University, Saint Louis University or the Cortex building.
The net budget impact outlined by Adams would be:
- Staffing reductions: $9.4 million
- Early retirement: $1.2 million
- Other non-workforce efficiencies: $2.2 million
- School closings and consolidations: $1.8 million
Additional costs would include $5.7 million for new buses to accommodate the new school schedules and $502,000 for the new bio-medical high school, for total net savings of $8.4 million.
But those cold numbers were matched by the impassioned pleas by a number of Cleveland NJROTC students who spoke at the beginning of the 90-minute meeting, as a respectful crowd urged them on.
Typical of their comments were those of Benny Nguyen, who noted that the school’s motto of honor, courage and commitment make it a special place.
“It’s been a remarkable experience,” he said of his time there. “I have had so many inspirational staff members.
“It’s an amazing school.”
Many of the students noted how Cleveland’s academic achievement, attendance and graduation rates are among the leaders in the city school system, and they worry that students younger than they have will not have the same opportunity that they have been able to take advantage of.
“Cleveland is not like a school,” said Jacob Lindsey. “It’s a home…. It’s like a family.”
He noted that his family’s home burned down, and “really the only thing that could keep me straight was my schoolwork.”
Katelyn Schalk noted the school’s winning track team and its disciplined environment should count for more than its low enrollment, and she pointed out that high schools like Carnahan and Northwest should be closed if enrollment is a factor.
“Why is this meeting not about how to make Cleveland better?” she asked.
“Many people feel Cleveland is an honor to the district, not a burden.”
And Torshawna Griffin noted that when she gets out of school and earns her first paycheck, she wants to be able to use part of it to give back to the high school that put her on the right path.
“I feel like my home is at Cleveland,” she said, “and I want a home to go back to.”
“Our school is so small that our principal knew my name after two weeks, and I had never even been in her office.”
That small enrollment was one factor that Adams cited in the decision to close it, and he said it has been a puzzle why more families have not chosen to send their children to Cleveland. He noted its academic success and the strong feelings its students have, but, he added, “the facts are what they are.”
He noted that applications to the school are down, and Cleveland has had the lowest rate of students who apply and meet the criteria for admission.
“While you view this as a problem for the district,” Adams added, “it is a problem of people not choosing to go to this school. Students have multiple choices, and they select other schools.
“While I hear you loud and clear, the recommendation is to close Cleveland.”
In two weeks, the school’s backers will find out whether that recommendation sticks this time around.