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Editor's Weekly: Time to get down to business

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 6, 2013 - Dear Beaconites -- As a cool breeze chased away the heat, St. Louisans marked the turning of the seasons in two ways this week. The Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, opened 10 days of reflection and repentence for some. Labor Day brought the end of summer for all.

School started a week or two ago for most students, but early September still feels like the time when the gears shift and we are supposed to get down to business. It's been a newsy summer, with debate over schools, guns and taxes dominating the local scene. This week brought a chance to reflect on how these controversies spring from the region's deeper challenges and to get down to business in addressing them.

How to ensure school quality for all is the deeper challenge that lies beneath the debate over accreditation and student transfers. This week, Missouri Auditor Tom Schweich delivered a timely reminder of the depth of the problem in his assessment of the St. Louis Public Schools. The audit faulted the district for several lapses, including not doing enough to help students who fall behind.

Most heartbreaking to me was superintendent Kelvin Adams' response. He acknowledged that students move from grade to grade even if they can't do the work because holding them back might cause even more problems. "If you keep kids back for one or two years," Adams told Beacon reporter Dale Singer, "the likelihood is that they will never graduate from high school."

Also addressing the school quality issue, the Beacon continued a series of graphics that presents key facts in simple form. Presentation editor Brent Jones looked at which districts are making the biggest effort in terms of tax rate and whether there is a correlation between tax rate and success in the accreditation score.

Turns out that some districts that tax themselves most heavily score worst on accreditation. That includes Normandy and Riverview, which have lost accreditation and are sending transfer students to other districts. Some of the districts that score best -- Ladue and Clayton, for example -- have among the lowest tax rates. Of course, tax rates are only one tiny piece of the school story, and we'll be exploring other facets in coming weeks.

An ideological and cultural schism is the deeper issue that lies beneath the debate over guns and taxes. As Jason Rosenbaum reported, these controversies are among the hottest in the runup to the Missouri legislature's veto session. The gun bill, which Gov. Jay Nixon vetoed, would bar enforcement of federal laws. It's a particularly stark example of the philosophical chasm that divides parties and pits faction against faction of Missouri Republicans. These fundamental philosophical differences make it almost impossible to build consensus around practical problem solving.

Fragmentation of leadership is the deeper issue that lies beneath the debate over city-county reunification. Discussion has been underway for months about the possibility of the city reentering or merging with St. Louis County to improve government efficiency and regional effectiveness.

Last week, a Post-Dispatch editorial raised the prospect that unification could be done through a "nuclear option" -- creating one mega-St. Louis that would absorb existing suburban municipalities as well as the city and the unincorporated county. Jason pointed out procedural obstacles in moving forward on any of the courses under discussion; Jo Mannies continues to analyze the politics behind the ideas. As a longtime Kirkwoodian, I can only wonder what planet the nuclear option came from and whether it was floated to discredit more modest steps that might actually have a chance of happening.

With Labor Day behind us, the region will be getting down to business on its current controversies and confronting or avoiding the deeper challenges they signify. The Beacon will continue to report on both levels, trusting that greater understanding will help pave the way to a better St. Louis for all.