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Tony Messenger: In St. Louis schools, water fountains are again symbols of inequality

First Published      Last Updated Sep 01 2016 10:35 pm

ST. LOUIS • Yellow tape marks the drinking fountains in 30 St. Louis public schools as off-limits, denying students even a sip of water.

In the wake of this summer's lead-poisoning crisis in Flint, Michigan, officials here tested water at their schools, many of them decades-old buildings in need of repair. Some had results bad enough to warrant an immediate shut-off of the drinking fountains; more than a dozen had at least one reading four or five times the readings recorded in Flint homes. At other schools, there was at least one test that exceeded the district's 10-parts-per-billion threshold, but administrators determined that there was enough clean water available elsewhere in the school to keep most of the taps running.




The water will be cold and clean at Reed Elementary School in suburban Ladue, in the 63124 ZIP code that often ranks as one of the nation's wealthiest. In fact, thanks to a "naming opportunities" initiative, the drinking fountain there might soon find itself inscribed with a generous donor's name — a reminder to thirsty students that they live in a place where clean water is a privilege.

In a region that has been in the national civil rights consciousness since the Aug. 9, 2014, killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, the water fountain has returned as a metaphor for racial division. In St. Louis city schools, 82 percent of the students are black, and 85 percent qualify for free lunch. In Ladue, only 17 percent are black, and 12 percent qualify for free lunch.

Last year, voters in Ladue passed an $85 million bond issue to build new schools and update already first-class facilities. But the district wanted even more money. So the Ladue Education Foundation decided to seek hundreds of thousands more dollars from the region's deep-pocketed elite by selling naming rights to rooms and hallways, performing arts centers, football stadiums and, yes, water fountains.

The price for getting a school drinking fountain named in your honor is $3,000, a pittance compared to $600,000 it would cost to have your name plastered on a stadium.

This monument to excess — while children two ZIP codes away have been sucking poisonous lead into their tiny bodies for who knows how long — brings to mind the words of Judge Byron Kinder in his landmark decision in 1993 declaring Missouri's school-funding scheme "irrational" and unconstitutional.

Pointing to wide disparities in the state, Kinder wrote that school funding in Missouri ranged from "the golden to the god-awful."

It's hard to imagine anything more god-awful than children who go to school and swallow IQ-robbing heavy metal, courtesy of the taxpayers. Meanwhile, children mere blocks away get donor-inscribed water fountains in hallways paved with engraved bricks (that will be $350, please).

This division, by race and by class, is generational, and it's not unique to St. Louis. Last week, the nonprofit EdBuild published a list of the nation's 50 most segregated school-district borders as defined by demographic differences such as poverty level, median home prices and school funding. Accompanying St. Louis on the list were districts from all over the country, including Detroit's city schools and their border with Grosse Point, and Birmingham, Alabama, and its border with Vestavia Hills. In both the Michigan and Alabama examples, the difference in poverty between the bordering districts is more than 40 percent.

When Kinder tossed the old funding scheme in 1993, he noted that the problem of disparity in state support for public schools had existed for decades. It's a property-tax-based system that has discrimination built into it. That's what the Spainhower Commission noted in 1968 when it urged lawmakers to redraw school-district boundaries, creating one district in St. Louis — not 24 — so that children seeking to quench their thirst would have the same opportunity to do so no matter what neighborhood they lived in.

Spainhower was ignored.

So, too, was Kinder. Lawmakers have tweaked the funding formula for schools over the years, but the disparities remain, and so does the massive underfunding. That middle-class white parents (I am one of them) aren't directly invested in the success of inner-city black children is a structural problem that inherently leads to racial inequity. The system is broken, and that is one reason why St. Louis remains a city divided.

A few months ago, I watched young Aaliyah and Rashaud Dinwiddie wander around barefoot in their north St. Louis home, playing with their toys in a mostly furniture-less room. They had just moved across the street because their old apartment had lead paint. Health department testing had found levels of lead in both children that were among the highest recorded in St. Louis last year. Rashaud, 5, started public school this month in a city that continues to poison its children.

In 2014, more than 3,000 children in St. Louis were found to have lead levels high enough to potentially cause developmental delays. Much of this lead problem has been thought to be related to lead-based paint in older housing stock. But water at the schools had never been tested.

The Dinwiddie children are at least the second generation in their family to have lead poisoning. Their father, Shaun, and his brother, Juron, both had lead poisoning as children. They attended Beaumont High School, which this week put yellow tape around its drinking fountains.

Two years ago, like many in my city and nationwide, I seethed with anger as I looked at images night after night of armored vehicles seeming to lay siege to young protesters in Ferguson. "This is not St. Louis," I screamed into a digital recorder for a video editorial I produced that pleaded for the madness to stop. St. Louis was better than the violent images of police in militarized gear cordoning black protesters into a corner, I insisted.

But this is St. Louis. As long as children in wealthy suburbs have donor-funded drinking fountains flowing with clean water while children in the city's poorest neighborhoods have crime tape surrounding theirs, this is a region divided by race and class in the most despicable of ways.

- Tony Messenger, metro columnist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, was a 2015 Pulitzer Prize finalist for a series of editorials on Ferguson. This article was adapted from two columns originally published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

 

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