The most important election for the metro area in years didn't take place on November 5 -- it happens next April.
What Jean Carnahan thinks about Baghdad or what Jim Talent wants you to do with his prescription-drug plan is small stuff compared with the fate of the 42,000 kids in the St. Louis Public Schools.
Those children and adolescents attend schools that are overcrowded, overburdened and provisionally accredited. This is not an issue confined by Skinker Boulevard and the River des Peres.
This is a troubled school system that doesn't do a dependable job of educating its kids. When and if these kids graduate, they won't stay on the reservation, so it's a problem for the city, the suburbs, the state and the feds. Even so, few politicians want to mess with it, aside from hand-wringing and platitude-spinning.
Those who win the four open seats in the school-board election next April could form the new working majority on the seven-member St. Louis Board of Education. One potential candidate is former Mayor Vince Schoemehl, who is mulling a run and attempting to assemble a slate of candidates.
When he tells people, they laugh at him.
"When I've said to people that I'm considering doing this, the first response I get from people is 'What, are you crazy?' Then, when you sit down and take them through the process, they say, 'Maybe this is an opportunity for the schools," Schoemehl says.
The ex-mayor thinks that if some people with name recognition in the political community were to step up, it could "recalibrate people's thinking about the school board." But he's also realistic.
"I don't know that there's going to be much competition for this," he says.
One name mentioned is that of former deputy mayor Mike Jones, who heads up the St. Louis Regional Empowerment Zone, which made the downtown convention-center hotel possible. Schoemehl asked Jones, who was tempted to take the plunge but gave Schoemehl a quick negative answer.
"It's true that my name has been bandied about, but no," says Jones. "Something desperately needs to be done, but no."
The new board faces a decision on the fate of the district's superintendent, Dr. Cleveland Hammonds Jr. He's under contract until 2004 but could be fired by the board at any time. Jones thinks the hardest part will be changing the course of the district.
"Everybody underestimates how hard it will be," says Jones. "I think it needs to be a community effort, but it's going to require effective black leadership. I don't think you can put a bunch of well-meaning white folks with one or two well-meaning [blacks] and come up with a governing coalition that can create the kind of environment for revolutionary change that is needed to turn public education around in St. Louis."
Schoemehl says he was contacted about seven months ago about running for the school board but says he wanted to wait to see whether anyone else stepped forward. Other people mentioned for a possible slate were Jones and former Anheuser-Busch executive Wayman Smith, another prominent African-American.
Current school-board member Amy Hilgemann has found two willing souls who have made a commitment to run, but she refuses to name them. She says she has two others who are interested but have not made the final decision.
Another potential player is Mayor Francis Slay. But the mayor's chief of staff, Jeff Rainford, says that seeking control over the district is not part of Slay's agenda "at this moment" because the emphasis is on electing candidates to the board who want "dramatic improvement" to city schools.
With that end in mind, Rainford says, he's talked to Schoemehl, Hilgemann and members of the Black Leadership Roundtable about the school-board election, but he insists that Slay is "not screening, picking or deigning [sic] candidates." Hilgemann says Slay has scheduled a meeting this week with her, Schoemehl and others interested in finding candidates for the board.
The St. Louis Education Caucus, backed by the Danforth Foundation, is trying to put together a slate of four candidates; like Schoemehl, it hasn't announced a formal lineup. But this initiative has been criticized by Hilgemann and Haas as an attempt to short-circuit grassroots reform. Hilgemann doesn't think marquee names are what the school board needs.
"To have an overpowered celebrity list on our board will intimidate people. We need some parents on this board. We need some people who are in these schools as part of their life," says Hilgemann.
Schoemehl admits to consulting with the Danforth Foundation and Civic Progress about who could make up a slate. But he says he's also talked with Hilgemann. Schoemehl wants to come up with an agenda for the new board.
Topic A for Hilgemann is getting rid of Hammonds and appointing an interim superintendent from within the district.
Jones says a new superintendent would need to take a severe approach. "I wouldn't go with a Florence Nightingale," says Jones. "I'd go with a General Patton."
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