In June of 2015, state officials received letters of reassurance from Hazelwood that the school district was in “great financial shape.”
In January, State Representative Keith English says another letter made its way to his office from Hazelwood superintendent Ingrid Clark-Jackson. “Two days after election filings closed, we received a letter stating the district was in financial straits. 15 million dollars in the red,” says English.
Rep. English says more assurances were made by the school board to calm his concerns regarding student programs and resources. Although the district was in financial bad shape, the school board told English budget cuts would not affect students. “But when you cut band, physical education and orchestra, that’s the first thing that hurts children,” English adds. Proposed cuts threatened music and development-based programs in Hazelwood schools; and also jeopardized future educational field trips, including trips to the state capital.
Officials began digging into Hazelwood’s financial records. What the paper trails uncovered stunned parents and staff. The more Rep. English researched, the more red flags he uncovered. An excess of $100,000 in salary for roughly 20 administrators last year, exorbitant administrative travel expenses and expensive health insurance plans were only the tip of the iceberg according to Rep. English.
Ingrid Clark-Jackson found herself under intense scrutiny from state officials, parents and the media for not communicating about financial issues before passing substantial cuts to student programs; pressure that ultimately led to her resignation says Rep. English. In a united effort to protect local students, their families and voters, English is now assisting in the push to force an independent state audit of the Hazelwood district.
As a Stl native and graduate of the Hazelwood school district, Rep. English’s commitment to his hometown and its students can easily be heard in the impassioned tone of his voice when discussing the issues. He sits down with The St. Louis Spotlight to discuss what his investigation into Hazelwood has uncovered so far and his vision for a better North St. Louis County, for all residents and their families.
Keith English: Band and orchestra have been known to have children with the highest test scores and you’re going to cut the thing that keeps them going?
We heard stories from parents and children. One student said I was in my cocoon. I never really flowered or blossomed until I picked up the violin in the 4th grade. Her test scores went through the roof and she’s doing very well now in Jr. High with opening up to other kids. Kids with ADHD, sometimes their only real vice is through physical education, exerting that build up of energy. I worked with Rep. Allen Green and attended every school board meeting, it was critical taxpayers and parents knew we too were blindsided by this. As Representatives, we hold the purse strings of $70 million a year.
Hazelwood parents formed a committee--Let Our Kids Play--to get everyone involved in coming up with a solution rather than cutting programs. I asked state auditor Nicole Galloway for an internal audit of the budget. In order for that to happen, we need 5,000 signatures from registered voters in the district to mandate an internal audit.
Fingers not only point to school board members but to those at the top; Clark-Jackson, who became interim and budget chairman Dwight Lindhorst. Pressure from parents, taxpayers and myself resulted in their resignations in July of this year. Dwight was in the school system for over 20 years. The Hazelwood district hires a company to do their audits biannually and Dwight came from that company. Imagine that.
When that info came out, Dwight left Hazelwood and went to another district in the area. How did he with all this tension? Well, Clark-Jackson came from the Ritenour School District. And guess where our budget chairman wound up? She’s gone and he’s gone. We have a new superintendent who seems to be making changes and good strides in the right direction. We have a serious bleeding going on. Interns helped me with a 2,500 page, line by line audit of the school budget and it showed 3.1 million in increased spending just in the administration department alone. There was a $75,000 increase in travel and expenses for Clark-Jackson and her 10 assistant superintendents.
LeShea Agnew: I can hear the disparagement in your voice. Where does that passion come from when dealing with mismanagement and mishandling of funds as it relates to our students, teachers and district?
English: I’m a numbers guy. (laughing) I’m not good with my checkbook but if I look at yours and help you realize going to McDonald’s 75 times this month is something that could be addressed. I’m a graduate of the Hazelwood school district, class of ‘86. We actually have our thirty-year coming up. The district has done a downward spiral and bringing with it national attention to the issues that are happening. This is not a black or white issue. This should be criminal. Honestly. I can guarantee when Nicole Galloway does her deep hunting, more people will leave. They’re already quitting their jobs. 6 figure jobs. Clark-Jackson was making an excess of $200,000 a year plus $100,000 in benefits. $650 for rent. $650 for mileage and maintenance for her car. Nobody else gets that. With all the perks and benefits she was making about $330,000, and the new superintendent is making more than that.
Not one cut was made to anyone making 6 figures. If anything, they’ve increased spending. Clark-Jackson had friends and co-workers she worked closely with and brought them into new positions. What happened to the other assistant superintendents? She unilaterally moved them to other positions but still making the same salary. Imagine what that did to morale in the break room. People are making $60-70,000 in salary and here comes someone making more than double for the same position they worked for years. People were quitting and leaving the district because of this. One former teacher is selling real estate now. She wanted to be a teacher for the rest of her life but couldn’t handle the moral in the schools.
I actually uncovered where we can get the extra money to cover the budget gaps. The district and taxpayers own many vacant properties around the Hazelwood district and across from Jamestown Mall. There are 14 acres that were set aside for a future high school. We can sell it for 50 cents on the dollar and fix one year of budget crisis. There is also property across from the golf course in Blackjack that has a house on it. We can sell that and generate 3 million, plus the 6 million I just mentioned. There’s the 9 million we’re missing. That fixes all budget problems for the next few years. I’m sure someone would want property across from a golf course. There are options and things we can do. We’re not done yet.
Agnew: How can taxpayers get involved?
English: We can change the dynamics of what’s going on. Two more board members are up for reelection. We need to take our school board back and watch our tax dollars closely. Folks in North St. Louis County, the majority of them are living paycheck to paycheck. I, as a State Rep., want to make sure I do everything possible to make sure they’re not wasting people’s tax dollars, that we’re spending their dollars correctly and don’t increase taxes. If anything, lower taxes. People know how to spend their money better than the government.
Agnew: Describe the rippling impact to our students and families when school programs are cut.
English: If we don’t have an economy with good school districts, churches and parks…people will move. And they are. When I look back at the city of St. Louis and how it was founded in the 1800’s, the people who developed that area said if we don’t have those three things, people will leave. I was in a household where my parents lived paycheck to paycheck. I can’t fathom a teacher making $30,000 a year and actually surviving. But it’s their passion. Without the tools and resources and the things they need to make it in a world that’s changing dramatically daily, our schools will be tough to teach. You already see teachers leaving and going to other districts, not just to better themselves but to get the tools and resources they need. If they would cut at the top and give teachers what they need, we could really move our district in the right direction.
Ferguson-Florissant just gave teachers a 3% pay increase. When Ferguson happened, it was not just North St. Louis, it was a statewide effect. Across the whole U.S. really. I feel Jay Nixon failed us as a leader on the Ferguson issue. I feel other people in powerful positions failed us. Jay Nixon said he would give low-interest loans to all these business owners whose businesses were destroyed. Many of them had bags of pennies to open their restaurants, businesses and hair salons. They don’t have credit because they built what they have from the ground up. No bank is going to give you a loan for a burned down community, it’s just not gonna happen. A lot of people have moved to Florissant from Ferguson, we’re seeing a large increase in vacant homes being rented. There is healing happening. This community is still together and coming together but it will take many more years to rebuild.
Agnew: Bring us up to speed on your upcoming campaign for reelection.
English: Certainly. I’m the only Independent in the Missouri legislature. I feel you can be a voice for change no matter what political party you are. I’m here to get things done. I am the only Representative out of 163 who can say 6 bills were signed by the Governor this year that directly impact North St. Louis County. I’m getting things done without political party-pulling from each side. My opponent doesn’t have the qualifications or the experience that I have. It’s about making connections and building relationships. I’m into building bridges, not destroying them. I’ve built a lot of bridges with colleagues to move the state forward and in the right direction. I would appreciate everyone’s support on November 8th to reelect me as State Representative.
Agnew: How was that experience? Going nonpartisan?
English: (laughs after pausing) Wow….well…it was like a bad marriage and it was time to move on. There was a cost no doubt, and I thought it would be my political career. But the more people I talk to say they’re liking that I’m an Independent because I’m open minded. I was on the Florissant City Council, for two years I was president. I was an Independent and nonpartisan and I got so much more work done.
The same thing happened in the state legislature. When I had a democratic “D” behind my name and with a super majority of 119 republicans, they didn’t need me or any North St. Louis County democrats to move their motivation and get things done. When I became an Independent I was put on certain committees and we were getting things done. I was talking, they were listening. We’ve got cyber bullying laws where schools will take matters into their own hands and correct those problems, not just send them to juvenile detention and build our court system up over things that could be handled by the schools. North St. Louis County elections, people were disenfranchised and not able to vote. I passed legislation for monitors to stay at the polls until the last person voted. I had my hand in every different bill, at every single table. I had a voice for North St. Louis County, it’s been heard and echoes back to the community.
Rep. Keith English represents part of St. Louis County including Florissant (District 68) in the Missouri House of Representatives. He was elected to his first term in 2012. Rep. English has been an IBEW electrician, Local 1, for 25 years and business owner for 10 years. Born in St. Louis, Rep. English graduated from Hazelwood Central High School and attended Saint Louis University. He and his wife Kelly have three children and six grandchildren.