The Privileged Class

As a Feb. 2 reckoning approaches for city voters and schools, an escape clause surfaces for Ladue

The Ladue School District was afforded an option not granted the other 15 participating suburban school districts in the area's school-desegregation settlement reached last week, but Charles McKenna, superintendent of the Ladue School District, declined to discuss the specifics of the deal, particularly what's been called the "Ladue exemption."

"I can't comment on that and appropriately keep all conversations to which I have been privy -- including negotiation sessions and executive sessions of the Board of Education -- confidential, which I am sworn to do," McKenna said Monday. "I'm very upset people thought that they could talk out of those sessions when we were instructed explicitly not to. I just do not understand how that happened."

Well, some people had strong emotions about the settlement and why the upscale, mostly white burb of Ladue held out and was allowed to be the only suburban district next year to have the option to stop accepting African-American transfer students from the city. Other districts agreed to keep taking new students for at least three years.

But why would 15 county school districts agree and only Ladue hold out?
"Because they're jerks. Their superintendent's a jerk, their lawyer's a jerk; that's just the way they are," says one participant in the negotiations, referring to Ladue. "Everybody that was involved in those negotiations would tell you, in a moment of pure candor, that they were the big problem throughout the whole process.

"Their lawyer was just adamant on this thing," continues the participant. "The sentiment in the county was that the boards were a little concerned about voting to stay in desegregation. They were nervous about it. The agreement was to 'let's all hold hands together -- if everybody makes a decision to continue, then none of the boards is going to be criticized,'" says the participant. "And Ladue said no.

"There are 16 different districts; 15 of them could agree, but not Ladue. Like they can't afford it, right?"

Several parties in the negotiations say the suburban districts had a disincentive to negotiate because they expected to receive a similar deal if settlement talks fell apart and the desegregation program's future had to be decided by U.S. District Judge Stephen Limbaugh.

The way the settlement is expected to be worded, the Ladue exemption states that any district that spends more than a specified amount per student -- and only Ladue qualifies -- may opt out of the program beginning in the fall. Transfer students now in the Ladue system would be allowed to finish at their current schools.

Meanwhile, back in the city, where the fate of the desegregation settlement will be decided on Feb. 2 at the polls, forces are gathering to push approval of a two-thirds-cent sales-tax increase. If passed, the tax hike is expected to bring in a bit more than $20 million, thereby triggering about $40 million in state funds. That 2-for-1 match would continue yearly and is planned to approximate, less several million dollars, the $70 million the city schools now receive under the court-sanctioned desegregation agreement. Under the program, about 13,000 African-American students from the city attend county schools, while 1,300 white county students attend the popular magnet schools in the city.

Jeff Rainford is heading up a team of political and public-relations consultants pushing for the sales tax. Resources shouldn't be a factor, because Civic Progress is behind the tax, which is the only issue on the ballot. Despite obstacles, Rainford is upbeat that with a grassroots campaign, instead of a campaign heavy with media ads, the tax will pass.

"It's possible if this community decides, once and for all, that we're going to set aside all our differences over race, over 'I send my kids to the parochial schools and you don't and I want them in my neighborhood and out of yours' or whatever, if we all sit down and focus on what's best for the children of the city of St. Louis, it's possible," says Rainford. "Everybody thinks nobody will ever do that, that people are only going to vote their pocketbooks, but I think this community might surprise some people."

Mayor Clarence Harmon, a recent convert, supports the tax, as does Aldermanic President Francis Slay, who, along with State Sen. William "Lacy" Clay, is the co-chair of the campaign. One tactic, supported by St. Louis Public Schools Superintendent Cleveland Hammonds Jr., is to accentuate the positive -- aim for voters who are likely supporters of city schools.

"We'll be focusing on getting the yes votes out," says Hammonds. "We feel if there are definite yes votes, it'll be those people directly connected to the schools -- people who have youngsters in the school and people who work for the school. We're talking about all the staff in the system that work for us and their relatives, plus the parents and their relatives, that's a good source of yes votes."

Hammonds admits that the settlement has its imperfections but describes it as giving city schools "more than 90 percent of what the board asked for in an earlier document submitted to the court." The key is the $180 million for building and renovating city schools and continued funding for magnet schools.

Not everyone is thrilled. Susan Turk, parent of a city-school student and active in the district's Parents Assembly, thinks the settlement stinks.

"It's a good deal for the state that wants to get out from under its responsibilities to the children in this city, it's a good deal for the bigots who don't want to remedy the problems in the St. Louis Public Schools and couldn't care less about these kids, and it's a good deal for the powers who be who for some reason don't want to have to get involved in a protracted battle with the jerks outstate who control the purse strings," says Turk. "It's a lousy deal for the children in this city. We get less. We get resources taken away when there weren't enough resources in place to begin with."

Hammonds believes going back to the judge would hurt city schools.
"There is definitely no guarantee the judge would give us more; he may give us even less," he says. "I think it's unrealistic to think he would impose any tax on the citizens or that he would require the state to do anything extra in funding -- he never indicated that. He certainly has nothing in his past that would indicate he would do anything like that. Given that uncertainty about what Judge Limbaugh might do, this is the best possible situation we can have."

The provision in the settlement that gives the city district the usual two years to correct problems if it loses its accreditation doesn't mean the city schools won't have incentives to improve their performance. Hammonds says the settlement includes "hard targets and goals that we have to meet." If those goals and targets aren't met, schools will be reconstituted, meaning that teachers and principals will be reassigned and remedial programs installed.

"I haven't met a person who doesn't want to improve the schools," says Hammonds, insisting that teachers and administrators who have stayed with city schools want improvement. "I haven't met a person who isn't tired of reading in the paper about what a poor job we're doing or tired of reading quotes from Mayor Harmon about all this stuff. I haven't met anybody who wants to continue hearing that.