School Daze

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

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Listen to D.J. Wilson at 7 p.m. Mondays on KDHX (88.1 FM). Tip Short Cuts: voice, 314-615-6711; fax, 615-6716; e-mail, [email protected].

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.

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.

"Tom Bauer is not an educator," says Turk. "Tom Bauer is not concerned about the children improving their academic achievement. He's concerned about turning us back into Ozzie and Harriet's America."

Turk does have a point. Short Cuts is unconvinced that putting all the kids in one school through the eighth grade will solve anything for a district that is struggling to be fully accredited, a district with 80 percent of its students qualified for free and reduced-cost lunches. Some areas of the city are packed with kids; others are full of empty-nesters and families with kids in parochial schools. Even in the '50s and '60s, St. Louis had a high percentage of school-age children in private and parochial schools. That hasn't changed.

And as Minnie Liddell knew 30 years ago, there is the race question. For the last three decades, "neighborhood schools" and "forced busing" were bogeyman buzzwords, shorthand for "keeping whites with whites and blacks with blacks." But city schools are about 81 percent African-American, and neighborhood schools already exist. There is no forced busing for the purpose of integration. Busing brings kids to neighborhood schools or to magnet schools or to special-needs schools. Turk senses the racial subplot.

"There are neighborhoods in this city that can no longer support a school," she says. "There aren't enough children in those neighborhoods. Maybe he's thinking that if they stop busing children in from other neighborhoods, then, mysteriously, white children will reappear in the schools. His fantasy is that all the children in Dogtown will be able to walk to school again. He's not looking at the demographic reality of whether or not there are children there."

Bauer thinks the ghost of desegregation lingers, and he says that during his legal wrestling with the district, it became apparent to him that the district wants to prolong the remnants of the desegregation plan and would once again bus students for racial reasons.

"If you ever have a neighborhood where you have a little bit of cohesiveness, a large clump of children who are able to get into that school, they're going to force-bus for reason of race," says Bauer.

But the 24th Ward alderman says race should have nothing do with who votes for his proposition.

"This is something that parents who care will support, irrespective of ethnicity. Race has nothing to do with it," says Bauer. "The school system can interact with the family, and the family can interact with the school system, if it's a neighborhood school. You can't do it with the current system."

Bauer believes the city school district has enough bonding capacity to fund the changes that would be required if the proposition passes. The money spent would be worth it to the city, he believes.

"You are not going to find anybody who is familiar with the history of St. Louis city over the last 30 years who won't tell you the biggest problem we've had has been the lack of neighborhood schools," says Bauer. "If you're a major corporation and have new people coming to St. Louis, the Realtors won't even show them houses in the city."

If the proposition passes, Davenport foresees logistical problems in the location of middle and elementary schools: If Northwest Middle School is converted into a K-8 school, the result will be two elementary schools only a block apart.

The school board has one final appeal before the state Supreme Court.

Bauer has trudged through the courts for the last three years. He is confident.

"Everybody was in deep denial," he says. "It's on the ballot; the ballot has been printed.

Davenport and the teachers' union see Bauer's idea as unnecessary and ill timed.

"We're starting to make progress," Davenport says of the push to regain full accreditation. "There's an energy within the district that is more positive and more hardworking than I've seen in a long time. When do we actually get to be on our own for a little while, without the court, without anybody telling us we have to do it this way or that way?"

Maybe never. Just as Minnie Liddell's legacy fades, it appears, the Tom Bauers of the world may take her place.

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