You never get the right answers when you ask the wrong questions, and you always ask the wrong questions when you don’t understand the problem.
Peter Drucker advised, when considering a situation, you should ask yourself: knowing everything I currently know, if I was starting today is this how I would do it?
If the answer is no, you need to ask yourself, then why am I continuing to do it this way?
When I began writing these columns I made a decision not to opine on local political issues because they’re usually intramural personal disputes that have more to with personality than policy. And I don’t believe in offering people unsolicited advice about how they should handle their business.
But I have made an exception when an issue raises to a level of strategic importance for the Black community, and I have an experience that gives me perspective that’s not widely available to the Black community.
The buildings of the St. Louis Public Schools at one time supported a student population of 100,000, in a city where the population exceeded 700,000 people.
Today the SLPS has a student population of 18,000 in 68 buildings, and there are currently 11,000 students housed in 34 buildings in charter schools. That’s 29,000 students in 102 buildings, all funded by the SLPS for a city where the population is a tad over 300,000.
Let’s look at three St. Louis-area school districts that are comparable to SLPS:
● Rockwood has 22,000 students in 31 schools.
● Ferguson-Florissant has 11,000 students in 24 schools.
● Hazelwood has 18,000 students in 29 schools.
All three of these districts occupy a larger physical footprint than SLPS and none has more than four high schools or six middle schools. By comparison, SLPS has 14 high schools and eight middle schools.
If a six-foot man weighed 300 pounds and reduced his weight to 175 pounds, none of his clothes would fit.
Now he could go to a tailor and ask the tailor to alter the clothes to fit his current size, but the tailor would tell him that’s impossible. “These clothes were made for a man who weighed 300 pounds, you weigh 175 pounds, you need a completely new wardrobe,” the tailor would say.
This is where the SLPS is.
There’s nothing you can do with current SLPS building infrastructure and make it fit the needs of today’s school system. You have too many buildings, in too many places, often the wrong places.
While many of these buildings are architecturally significant and should be preserved, they are structurally obsolete for the needs of 21st century students. No matter how much time, money and energy you spend on downsizing, you’ll always be on fool’s errand — that tailor trying to make the 300-pound man’s suit fit the man who now weighs 175 pounds.
Which schools to close is not the question the St. Louis Board of Education should be asking. The question they should be posing is what’s the school system we need to build today in order to meet the educational needs of children who will attend tomorrow?
They should also suggest the answer. They should advocate what a modern school system needs to look like, how many buildings it needs, and where they should be located to achieve the highest possible educational outcomes.
They should go further and consider a curriculum and teaching methods for this 21st century school system. The buildings should be imagined as more than just schools, but as cultural and community centers that anchor and enhance the communities in which they’re located.
Responsible leadership would use this infrastructure as the foundation and catalyst of our long-term development strategy, anchored by a citywide housing strategy that produces economically integrated neighborhoods.
That would be layered with a public transportation policy designed to support both housing and education. In fact, the entire policy focus of the city would be directed at supporting the implementation of this new educational infrastructure.
The St. Louis Board of Aldermen’s resolution opposing the school closing is just political pandering.
Now everyone will say we can’t afford this. My question is how much money do you spend every year on failure? You may very well fail at something this audacious, but you already know you’re going to fail doing what you’ve always done.
So the only real financial question is: what’s the incremental cost of success? Just remember, you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.
To attempt something like this requires serious leadership, and serious leadership is a function of vision, courage and political skill.
When archeologists of the future discover the St. Louis equivalent of the Cahokia Mounds and ponder what happened here to these people, they’ll find their answer in Proverbs, the leaders had no vision.
But I’m just saying. Then again nobody asked me, and besides what do I know?