Ban on sale of St. Louis schools stirs anger
By David Hunn
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
ST. LOUIS — When leaders of the St. Louis Public Schools prepared to sell a slew of old school buildings a year ago, they moved to ban a few businesses from buying. They barred liquor stores, landfills, distilleries, as well as shops that sell "so-called 'sexual toys.'"
They also blackballed charter schools.
Now, as the school board debates closing as many as 29 more buildings in the shrinking city district, and as new charter schools search desperately for space, a swell of anger is rising up against that restriction.
Legislators have readied resolutions in Jefferson City asking the district to remove the ban. Pro-charter and school-choice groups have sent around press releases. Residents worry about the empty buildings that will rot their neighborhoods.
And charter school leaders continue to grumble that they are public schools and should be able to use public buildings.
"It's not about getting anything for free," said Aaron North, director of the Missouri Charter Public School Association. "Charter schools just want to use those buildings to educate children."
City schools board member and CEO Rick Sullivan said the board will likely revisit the subject, with all this recent hoopla.
But, on further discussion, he chuckles a little. It's not like this is an unusual restriction, he says, in the business world. Companies often bar sales to direct competitors.
And, according to the district, that's exactly how this restriction got started.
INKING THE BAN
Leaders of the St. Louis Public Schools aren't sure whether they had a written policy before 2007 that banned charter schools from district buildings.
But, with charters booming — taking students and dollars from the district for the last decade — charter school leaders say there was certainly an unwritten rule.
"We tried to buy three," said Susan Uchitelle, board member at Confluence Academy, a charter school with three campuses and 2,700 students in St. Louis.
"We finally just gave up," Uchitelle said. "It was made very clear they weren't going to sell to us. They'd show them to us. They'd let us walk through them. But then they'd take them off the market."
Then, in April 2007, developer Sam Glasser engineered the purchase of King Tri-A school, on North Kingshighway, with no hint as to his intentions.
The district says he passed the building to Imagine Schools, a national company that starts and runs charters across the country. Glasser says he was acting on behalf of Imagine all along. Regardless, district leaders weren't happy.
"They wrote a letter to my law firm saying you're not supposed to do that," Glasser said Monday.
And the next fall, Imagine opened its Academy of Careers Middle School there.
That year, St. Louis Public Schools chief operating officer Deanna Anderson contacted district lawyers and asked for a new sale contract, with a deed restriction barring sales to charter schools for 100 years.
The board approved the new contract at the end of 2007.
FINDING A BUILDING
Now, Anderson says, the district has six properties on the market for more than $7 million, not including 15 others that had previously been closed and mothballed.
Meanwhile, charter schools continue to multiply.
There are 17 campuses in the city now, serving 9,500 students, or about one-quarter of the city school population, and charter leaders expect eight more to open by the fall of 2010.
Of those, six are still looking for school buildings — including two that plan to open in the fall.
"It's still hard to find a place for your schools," said Rhonda Broussard, executive director of St. Louis Language Immersion Schools, set to open this fall. "The consequences to us are largely monetary. It means we need to raise more money and spend more money in order to have a viable school facility for our students."
Broussard said she could buy an old St. Louis Public Schools building for between $800,000 and $1.5 million. But converting nonschool buildings? $2 million to $6 million, she said, state dollars that could go to the classroom.
The topic is so difficult, she can't even bring it up with others who hope to start charters, she said, with whom she shares nearly everything else. "Facilities is taboo — because we know how hard they are to find."
Broussard says her school is nearly ready. Her French- and Spanish-immersion program is set. Families are already interested. She has even begun hiring. But her building?
"That's the only thing, at this point," she said, "that's uncertain."
HURTING THE CITY
But neighborhoods across the city see far more uncertainty.
State Rep. T.D. El-Amin, a Democrat who represents much of north St. Louis, recently toured the neighborhoods with closed — or possibly closing — schools.
El-Amin is backing a resolution to pressure the district to reverse its policy. He pointed out schools that shut long ago, and ones that just closed their doors, some separated by just a few streets.
He understands that the district has shrunk sharply over the last decade, and can't possibly keep all its schools open. But schools, in so many neighborhoods, he said, are often the only anchor left.
"I'm telling you," he said. "Some of these streets, you just hear shots, all night long."
Residents — on their porches, watching their children, washing their cars — stopped to lament the loss with him.
"You losing all these schools," said Lamarr Paige, 38, a father of six. "And all the buildings just sitting there, just sitting there!"
It's not only the vandalism, theft and violence a vacant building draws, they all said.
There's something deeper.
It can change a kid's perspective on all schools, El-Amin said, not just the vacant ones.
The kids look up, he said, and they don't see children on the playground, or in the classroom, faces peering out of the tall school windows.
They see grass growing up through cracks in the asphalt.
They see broken glass, stones, and target practice to come.