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Some Policymakers Hope Board Of Freeholders Will Address St. Louis’ Education System

President of the Board of Aldermen Lewis Reed and current members of the Board of Freeholders listen as former Alderman Terry Kennedy welcomes the group.
File photo I Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
President of the Board of Aldermen Lewis Reed and current members of the Board of Freeholders listen as former Alderman Terry Kennedy welcomes the group.

St. Louis Alderwoman Shameem Clark Hubbard wants the newly created Board of Freeholders to tackle something that’s vexed policymakers for decades — education.

It’s a topic that’s undoubtedly played a role in how race and class divide St. Louis. And the 26th Ward Democrat contends the board should take up an opportunity that past governmental consolidation plans missed.

“One of the things that I will note was left out of the Better Together that was important to me was the education piece,” Hubbard said. “Because I know how education correlates with not just the poverty levels, but just the way the community thrives and is sustainable. So if I could have input on this, I would love to see a bigger light casted on education within this freeholder process.”

According to the Missouri Constitution, the Board of Freeholders has wide latitude to propose changes to city and county services — or combine St. Louis and St. Louis County governments. The amendment setting the board up doesn’t specifically mention schools, but it does allow for the formulation and adoption of “any other plan for the partial or complete government of all or any part of the city and the county.”

“What happens in the city affects the county, and what happens in the county affects the city. There’s no escaping that,” said Alderman Bret Narayan, D-24th Ward. “Neither the city or the county is an island. And so, if we look toward the future, education is what is going to fix some of the problems in the city and the county.” 

Some critics of the scuttled Better Together plan that would have created a metro government over the city and county were upset that the plan didn’t include any changes to the city and county’s school districts. They pointed to how wealthier and predominantly white districts are succeeding, while largely black, impoverished districts struggle.

Freeholder board member Carol Stroker said she saw that divide firsthand when she was a member of the Hazelwood School District Board.

“I spent six years with the Hazelwood School District. We have west, east and central,” said Stroker, referring to the three high schools in the district. “And they are all divided. And it depends upon where you live in west, central and east. And we have all range of people. And some of our children on the east side, they’re poor. And they are hurting. And some of their lifestyles are kind of tough. And it’s not fair to divide.”

Precedent and politics

Joseph Blanner, who is Gov. Mike Parson’s appointee on the board, noted that in 1926, the Board of Freeholders recommended consolidating St. Louis County schools under the direction of the St. Louis Board of Education. 

That was part of a larger plan that would have essentially had city government take over the county — a proposal that went down in flames at the ballot box.

“Ultimately, whatever is decided upon is going to have to be approved by dual majorities of the citizens of the city and the county. And so, whatever the outcome of this board process is, it’s going to have to be something that is going to be acceptable to those voters,” Blanner said. “I guess a question that this board would have to take up is whether or not something like that would be acceptable to the citizens.”

Notwithstanding the 1926 precedent, there’s some disagreement about whether the board can legally propose wholesale changes to schools.

Pat Kelly, executive director of the Municipal League of Metro St. Louis, said the whole concept of the Board of Freeholders was to look at and potentially change “functions of government for St. Louis City and St. Louis County." He added that he didn’t think it was envisioned to include school districts or fire districts or "those other political subdivisions within there.”

“If they did bring schools into the equation, and they were successful in changing them, there would be lawsuits filed,” Kelly said. “But I think the reality of it is that if you started to include school districts in that conversation, and the consolidation of school districts, that it would be defeated overwhelmingly in St. Louis County.” 

While emphasizing that the multitude of school districts contribute to regional fragmentation, board member Mark Mantovani added he’s not sure education is “within the scope of our opportunities to deal with.”

“I think we need to listen to others that have points of view on the topic,” Mantovani said. “Even in Indianapolis, where they resolved some of their government fragmentation a generation ago, they stayed out of the education area because it is so controversial. Which is unfortunate. But I would love it if we could tackle it.”

Follow Jason on Twitter: @jrosenbaum

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Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.