St. Louis schools open with boycotts

Associated Press

ST. LOUIS — Marchers turned out before the opening bell Monday, urging students to boycott the first day of class to protest a decision to close 16 schools. But the city’s interim superintendent said turnout at one school seemed normal.

After a morning rally, more than 100 protesters marched to the school board headquarters chanting “Shut it down!” and then to City Hall in a mock funeral procession.

Some children carried plywood tombstones bearing the names of closed schools, and two protesters carried a young boy in a coffin.

Democratic presidential candidate Al Sharpton urged the protesters to stand strong for their children.

“I think that any parent would be irresponsible not to make sure their child is protected and that their child is serviced,” Sharpton told the crowd. “Our fight is for the children.”

It was not immediately clear how many children were boycotting school Monday. Interim superintendent William Roberti told KTVI-TV that students arriving at Beaumont High School were enthusiastic, and attendance appeared to be normal.

“They’re getting their schedules, and they’re going to class,” Roberti said. “That’s what they should be doing.”

An interim management team and the school board have come under fire because of their decision last month to cut 1,400 jobs and close 16 schools — many of them in predominantly black neighborhoods. Officials with the New York-based turnaround management firm, Alvarez & Marsal, have said the moves were necessary to help eliminate a $90 million deficit.

The firm, which is running the district through at least this school year, has identified first-day attendance as a key measure of success. Last year, one in four students did not show.

Funding is an issue, too. State dollars are based partly on attendance, and officials worry that a boycott could prove costly for the district.

Protester Donna Jones took a vacation day to keep her three children, ages 14, 12 and 5, out of school. She said she believed the children were learning about civic involvement — standing up against a school district she believes has ignored the public.

“Who knows better than children, parents and teachers? They should have asked us how we felt,” said Jones, 46.

But David Klaus, 48, walked near the march route with his 12-year-old son, showing protesters that he was taking the boy to school.

“I’m sure many of them are doing what they think is right,” Klaus said. “To deliberately deprive the district and its children of more money is counterproductive at the minimum — stupid, to be more blunt.”

Mayor Francis Slay urged parents to ignore calls for the boycott. “What these (demonstrators) need to think about is what’s in the best interest of the kids,” he said.

On Sunday, the interim superintendent visited Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Church and stressed the importance of getting students to class.

“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.”

Some boycott organizers said they would urge students to stay away from school until the closed buildings are reopened and the management team is fired. More than a dozen churches set up safe havens for boycott supporters to take their children.