Short Cuts

This week, we begin this column reporting tidbits that don't deserve a full-fledged story treatment. We plan to report weekly on a variety of issues, with an emphasis on metro-area politics and media. Call us, write to us or e-mail us with tips, rumors, whatever. We promise to do our journalistic homework before printing anything.

HARMONIC DIVERGENCE: You're forgiven if you're a tad confused about where Mayor Clarence Harmon stands on the school-desegregation settlement. First, back in the fall of '97, in an if-drafted-I-will-serve statement, he said he'd run the city schools if the Legislature gave them to him. Didn't sound too enthused. When the settlement was finally going to be announced last month, he made noises that he wouldn't support it. But a come-to-Jesus meeting with Civic Progress member Ben Edwards and settlement coordinator William Danforth got him back on the path. Harmon supported the sales tax to raise money for the deseg program. But Friday, after the sales tax passed, Harmon had the city filing in federal court an objection to the settlement because of the elimination of the transitional school board, the three-person group that was stripped of its power in the settlement agreement.

Much as it may seem like a case of City Hall whiplash, Harmon didn't flip on this one, says mayoral spokesman John Boul. It's just that the mayor was unaware that gutting the transitional board was part of the settlement. The mayor did know that the transitional board wouldn't take over the district if it lost accreditation. The one power Harmon thought the transitional board still had was, suitably, the "transition" from court control to school-board control. Well, that went out the window as the settlement agreement was reached.

The trouble with the city's objection is that it's doubtful the judge could weld the transitional board back into the agreement without jeopardizing the settlement. So does Harmon want to scuttle the settlement just so the transitional board is back in the picture? "We're walking a real thin line; I appreciate that," says Boul. "But we think the settlement's flawed right now, and we think there's a way for the judge to remedy it, and that's why we entered the objection." The whole deal has to be submitted by March 15 for the settlement, finally, to be a done deal.

Talking about deseg, back when the agreement on the school-desegregation settlement had just emerged ("The Privileged Class," RFT, Jan. 27), we had asked a lawyer involved in the negotiations why-oh-why did the Ladue School District decide to bail out of the program when the other 15 suburban school districts stayed in. Why weren't they part of the deal? The lawyer's reply to us: "Because they're jerks. Their superintendent's a jerk, their lawyer's a jerk, that's just the way they are." No one from Ladue filed any libel suit about those comments, but then maybe they understand that truth is the best defense in a libel suit. If there were any lingering doubts about Ladue's educational egalitarianism, they were removed by the reaction to U.S. District Judge Stephen Limbaugh's rejection of Ladue's request for $600,000 to cover the cost of adding classrooms used by transfer students. Limbaugh denied the request, saying it wasn't clear the addition was built because of transfer students, and noting that the district will stop taking transfer students this fall. Ladue's superintendent, Charles McKenna, told the Post-Dispatch: "What we should have done was not sign the agreement and let the whole thing go to hell." Gee, what happened to noblesse oblige? If all the unwashed masses of schoolkids outside of Ladue end up in Hades, won't McKenna and his minions be awfully lonely in heaven? (DJW)

LOSS COLUMN: The back room of Arcelia's Restaurant in Lafayette Square was awash with Dos Equis and taquitos. There was a bountiful spread for the noshing. It was election night, and the supporters of Patrick Cacchione's run for 6th Ward alderman had gathered for what they hoped would be a victory party. In the sprawling 6th Ward, the race was more heated than most; the incumbent, Marit Clark, had stepped aside after 15 years in office. Cacchione and Lewis Reed -- both well-qualified candidates -- were vying for Democratic front-runner. As usual, there were no Republicans on the ballot.

Clark was there, talking about how thankless the job can be, people calling at all hours of the day, enlisting you to settle a dispute over a fence, or somebody took the "No Parking" sign from the curb and what are you gonna do about it? It never ends, she said. At one point, Cacchione, an administrator with the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet Health System, hushed the crowd to announce that, according to an election-board source, the race was too close to call. The din of the crowd rose a notch. For the next hour Cacchione alternated between talking to supporters and talking on his cell phone. Waiting for the word. Then he got off the phone and said to the expectant group: "Well, the good news is that if your trash doesn't get picked up, you won't have to call me. The bad news is, we lost by 180 votes." A collective groan issued forth. A few women began to cry. Cacchione stood there with his wife and two small children, dignified yet obviously crestfallen. He was no stranger to losing elections, having run twice against the seemingly invulnerable Bill Clay for U.S. Congress.

The vanquished candidate got on the cell phone to the Taproom, site of the Reed victory party. "Tell him his opponent is on the phone," said Cacchione to whoever answered. Cacchione congratulated Reed, then handed the phone to Clark, who, after offering her congrats, gave her potential successor an earful. What was said stays between them, but one wag later blurted that it sounded like Granny dressing down Jethro.

Reached over the weekend at home, Cacchione waxed philosophical over his abortive bid. "Now I don't have to have an opinion about speed bumps in Compton Heights," he mused. "I can say, 'I don't care.'" Cacchione says he's inclined to keep out of the political arena from now on, "but I think it's something that if people feel strongly about, they should go after it. I wanted it. It didn't happen. I'm dealing with it quite well. You look forward, and you move on." (WS)

BILL OF FIGHTS: A good columnist always keeps an eye out for potential targets, and Post-Dispatch columnist Bill McClellan is about as skillful as they come in spotting the good ones. And nothing gets a newspaperman juiced up more than a torrential negative reaction. Which is exactly what McClellan got when he tossed a couple of lines in a column in late '97 that rubbed the upper-crust elite at John Bur-roughs, the private school in Ladue, the wrong way. Writing about a stock-market nosedive, McClellan wrote that it made the common man feel good to hear that the rich sometimes have problems, too. Then he compared it to hearing that the Burroughs football team got its ass kicked in a game. He got some complaints. McClellan wrote another column the next week gigging the Burroughs kids a bit more. Noting that tuition is more than $10,000 a year and that the kids come from well-connected families, McClellan wrote: "it will surely teach them a good lesson about life if some kids less blessed kicked the stuffings out of them on the football field." Then came the flood of reaction from the Burroughs community. Next thing you know, the P-D editorial page decided to run a column -- McClellan-style -- from a Burroughs student named Andrew Volpe, wherein the presumably well-connected kid made fun of McClellan, accusing him of living in Clayton and rubbing shoulders with the ruling class himself, all the while pretending to be the common man. Ouch. On Monday, McClellan returned to that deep well again, this time in a column that began with the Ladue public-school district's decision to opt out of the school-desegregation program and stop accepting African-American students from city schools.

That's when the column got funky, as city Treasurer (and our cover guy this week) Larry Williams might say. McClellan mentioned that his newspaper's editorial page had rapped the Ladue district's knuckles about opting out of the deseg program and reminded readers that it was the same editorial page that ran Volpe's biting satire of his column more than a year ago. "That's because the editor of the editorial page is a member of the Burroughs community. She graduated from the school and has a child at the school," McClellan wrote. That would be Christine Bertelson. Is there a feud going on inside the P-D that is perhaps spilling over into the content of the paper? Not at all, says McClellan. Bertelson had asked him whether he minded if she ran Volpe's column before she did it. "Bertelson and I are friends," he says. (SA)

Written by D. J. Wilson, Wm. Stage and Safir Ahmed.
E-mail us at shortcuts@rftstl.com.

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