School Daze

Tom Bauer's "student bill of rights" stirs up a storm over the future of the city's public schools

Faced with frustration over St. Louis' public schools, Minnie Liddell and Alderman Tom Bauer did the same thing: turned to the courts for a remedy.

That is one of the few things thing Liddell and Bauer have in common.

Back in 1972, Liddell was dissatisfied with the education provided for her children, who are African-American. She became the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit that led to the court-mandated school-desegregation plan. Starting in 1983, the plan allowed African-American city students to enroll in suburban schools and provided magnet schools in the city that white suburban students could attend. In terms of the number of students involved, it was the nation's largest school-desegregation plan.

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The desegregation settlement reached three years ago between the state and the plaintiffs permitted suburban districts to vote to phase out the program after six years. The original deseg plan required busing for integration within the city, but that stopped years ago. One little-noticed amendment tacked onto that settlement has resurfaced.

Bauer -- who, back in the late '90s, was a state representative from Dogtown -- cooked up what he called a "student bill of rights" as part of Senate Bill 781, the state legislation that provided the groundwork for the settlement of the desegregation case.

It's taken Bauer years of lawsuits, appeals and a writ of mandamus to get his referendum on the November 5 ballot. The administration of the St. Louis Public Schools has done everything it could do to block the referendum from a vote. Bauer believes the district has spent "hundreds of thousands of dollars" in legal fees to stop him. But the ballots have been printed and his proposal is up for a vote.

Bauer's measure proposes to do away with middle schools, instead requiring that children attend the nearest neighborhood school and specifying that per-pupil expenditures "shall be equalized to the greatest extent possible."

Those who oppose Bauer's idea say it will cost millions to implement and could cripple or close magnet schools.

The years spent fighting the district in court have left Bauer with a less-than-rosy view of the school-district hierarchy. He scoffs at the contention that neighborhood schools already exist, even though district policy calls for children to attend the nearest school.

"The statement that children go to the school closest to home already is the statement of representatives of the school board," says Bauer. "We don't know if anything they say is accurate. My experience with them is that nothing they say is accurate."

Apparently this is what happens when you spend years in court fighting the school district to get your proposition on the ballot: You become bitter.

The district fought this plan because it doesn't want to have to restructure elementary schools to fit the kindergarten-through-eighth traditional model. The current system has children in kindergarten through fifth grade attending school together, after which they progress to a middle school for sixth through eighth grades.

Sheryl Davenport, head of the city's teachers' union, sees nothing but trouble and wasted money if Bauer's proposition passes. The changes will create more teacher shortages and threaten efforts being made for full accreditation, she says. She worries that uninformed voters will be fooled by the proposition's innocuous wording, unaware of its ramifications, particularly because it has received little media attention.

"I don't think it's on anybody's radar screen," says Davenport. "Everybody is worried about home rule and the [U.S.] Senate race."

The teachers' union opposes Bauer's proposition, as does Metropolitan Churches United, a multidenominational activist group.

"It's an unfunded mandate that will create chaos," says the Reverend Michael Vosler, pastor of Epiphany United Church of Christ. "There's been no thinking that really goes behind this concept. It's simply a superficial proposal that gives a mandate that creates chaos by virtue of its ambiguity.

As part of the July 31 ruling that put Bauer's proposition on the ballot, Circuit Court Judge Robert Dierker disputes the school district's contention that if passed, the "student bill of rights" will cost the district $183 million. Dierker doesn't buy that but admits the cost "is likely to exceed $40 million" and that it "may very well create a transportation nightmare."

Bauer appears to have found a soulmate in Dierker when it comes to the city schools. In his order, Dierker states that "not even respondent Board's witnesses had the effrontery to pretend that the Board currently operates a successful school system." Dierker also writes that "it was undisputed that private and parochial school systems utilizing a K-8 grade school configuration can provide students with an excellent education."

Bauer blasts the basic motivation of the district, saying it fears neighborhood schools and involved parents because providing a good education is not a priority.

"The reason they are afraid of it is because the school system in St. Louis city is designed to create cash flow for teachers; it's not designed to educate children," Bauer says. "The only time they started to educate children was when their accreditation was threatened. Prior to that, education of children wasn't a priority."

Yes, there's vitriol in the air, and plenty of it is aimed at Bauer, who before this controversy was best known for keeping a jackass in his back yard. Susan Turk, a Shaw-neighborbood activist and mother of a public-school student, thinks Bauer's priorities are nutty.

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