The question that tripped up Tim Wolfe is at the heart of what ails St. Louis.
Last November, during the Concerned Student 1950 protests on the University of Missouri campus in Columbia, a group of black students asked Wolfe, then the president of the university system, a simple question.
“What do you think systematic oppression is?” they asked.
Wolfe hemmed and hawed.
“I’ll give you an answer, but it will be the wrong answer,” he said, not wanting to engage in the important discussion.
So they asked again.
True to his word, Wolfe got the answer wrong. He put the onus back on the young protesters, suggesting systematic oppression was based on their understanding that certain government systems work against the interests of minorities.
The uncomfortable exchange, caught on video, contributed to Wolfe’s demise.
Nine months later, a federal judge got to the heart of the correct answer.
On Monday, U.S. District Judge Rodney W. Sippel put a hold on School Board elections in the Ferguson-Florissant school district in part because its method of electing at-large board members disenfranchises black voters.
Sippel’s ruling came on a lawsuit filed by the ACLU on behalf of the NAACP and three district residents who argued that blacks are under-represented on a board, which when the suit was filed, five of its seven members were white in a district in which 80 percent of the students are black. (A third black board member has since been elected.)
The problem, Sippel noted, isn’t necessarily with voters, but with a broken system:
“ … (I)t is my finding that the cumulative effects of historical discrimination, current political practices, and the socioeconomic conditions present in the District impact the ability of African-Americans in FFSD to participate equally in Board elections,” Sippel wrote.
The ruling could have tremendous impact on school districts in the St. Louis region. In fact, it’s endemic of the entire region’s disenfranchisement of young, black students, many of them living in areas of poverty with little political clout.
On Sunday, in writing about the St. Louis Public Schools having to shut off drinking water access in 30 schools because of high lead levels, I contrasted that sad reality with the situation in Ladue, a few miles away, where the district is actually selling naming rights for its drinking fountains.
The majority of readers who responded to the column — at least in calls and emails to me — recognized the power of the water fountain as a metaphor for this region’s serious problems with historic division.
But some — mostly parents of students at Mann Elementary in the city, and defenders of the Ladue district in the county — thought I unfairly singled out their schools.
This thoughtful note from Thomas Kickham, a city resident who teaches at St. Louis University High School and taught for 27 years in Rockwood schools, fairly summarizes some of those criticisms:
“I think you were unfair to Ladue patrons in your column. They did not create they system of inequity between districts. They are just doing all they can to do best by their children and their district. Certainly, it would help the city schools to have white, middle-class parents to invest their children in the district. Where these children go always improves the district for everybody. However, you made your investment of children in Rockwood … a great district. By doing so, you perpetuated the strength of the district rather than investing your children into a struggling city district to improve it.”
The letter writer is correct. It’s not today’s Ladue parent that created the problem, nor today’s Rockwood parent. My wife and I moved to Wildwood specifically so our children would have the educational opportunity they are receiving in great schools with excellent teachers, principals and facilities.
But guess what?
I recognize that I am part of the problem. My decision to invest my money in a suburban school district has a ripple effect on the entire region. I get that.
The solution, then, is to fix the system, and that’s what the column was about. It’s also what Sippel wrote will be necessary to cure the Voting Rights Act violations going on in the Ferguson-Florissant district.
“I encourage the parties … to work together in the remedy phase to devise a solution that effectively addresses the current inequalities impacting the electoral process and accommodates the special characteristics present in the FFSD population,” the judge wrote.
Here’s my solution to both problems:
Tear down the school district boundaries. In Ferguson-Florissant, in Ladue, in Rockwood, in St. Louis. Tear them down so that my tax dollars, and those from Ladue to Ferguson, are invested in all of the region’s children.
The current system, by its very existence, with school districts in St. Louis divided so that parents and taxpayers are invested only in their own kids’ schools, is inherently oppressive to children who live in poorer ZIP codes.
Back to my letter writer. The most important sentence was the one in the middle:
“Certainly, it would help the city schools to have white, middle-class parents to invest their children in the district.”
Were all the public schools in the city and county combined into one district, the student enrollment, based on most recent figures from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, would be 179,027. That would make St. Louis only the 13th-largest district in the country.
If we were all invested in every student, none of them would be drinking lead in their water. If we were all invested in every student, my child might have access to one less turf field on a football stadium in exchange for students in the city all having brand new textbooks or digital tablets. If we were all invested in every student in the district, then our pride for our district would extend beyond the four or five schools within a few miles of our house.
How’s this for a new future for St. Louis free of systematic oppression: Twenty years from now, when that most St. Louis of questions — where did you go to high school? — is asked, what if there was only one answer: I went to school in St. Louis.