East St. Louis struggles to keep its college and its hopes alive

EAST ST. LOUIS, Ill.
This slowly decaying, city, once called
“America’s Soweto,” is so impoverished that it lost its city hall six
years ago in a court judgement to a creditor.

Since then, the city government, local public schools, public
housing authority, and community college in this Mississippi River
bottom town of 40,000 all have been seized by the state. Yet residents,
98 percent of whom are Black and more than half of whom qualify for
welfare, appear determined not to lose the one institution they believe
could help their blighted city: Metropolitan Community College.

“East of anywhere often evokes the other side of the tracks,”
author Jonathan Kozol wrote of the city in 1991. “But for a first-time
visitor, … East St. Louis might suggest another world.”

He describes it in his book, Savage Inequalities, as a city “full
of bars and liquor stores and lots of ads for cigarettes that feature
pictures of Black people.

“Assemble all the worst things in America — gambling, liquor,
cigarettes and toxic fumes, sewage, waste disposal, prostitution — put
it all together. Then you dump it on Black people.”

Some elected officials here have filed a lawsuit that they hope
will prevent the Illinois Community College Board from closing the
beleaguered 400-student college by year’s end. Such a closure would be
unprecedented, national experts say. Only two community colleges have
been forcibly shut down in recent memory — one in Baltimore, and the
other, Metropolitan’s predecessor fight here in East St. Louis. In both
cases, the colleges swiftly reopened under new names and new
administrations, says Dr. Joshua L. Smith, director of New York
University’s urban community college leadership program.

“A well-functioning community college in East St. Louis could lead
a lot of people off welfare” Smith said. “It ought to be a symbol of
hope for a lot of residents to improve themselves.

“The services that a community college provides are absolutely
necessary in a community as downtrodden as that one,” he added.
“Closing it eliminates that possibility. I view that as tragic.”

State officials contend the college, plagued with problems since
its opening two-and-a-half years ago, has become so dysfunctional that
its numerous deficiencies can’t possibly be fixed. The latest evidence
that the college is out of control is an inquiry launched by the FBI
and the Illinois State Police into missing equipment and inventory
valued at more than $1 million. Authorities also are trying to
determine who inflated student enrollment records for the 1997 fiscal
year that netted the college about $700,000 in state funding it did not
deserve.

“The way it was run was an invitation to steal,” said Dr. Joseph
Cipfl, president and chief executive officer of the Illinois Community
College Board and a former college president himself.

The state board is scheduled to decide this week whether it will
run a community college here or turn control over to another school,
such as nearby Belleville Area College.

Some elected officials here cast Metropolitan’s closure as a
“racist” act by a “paternalistic” board that needs an excuse to seize
the college’s valuable thirty-four-acre river front campus.

“This is like a war,” declared state Rep. Wyvetter Younge (D-East
St. Louis) who won a twelfth term in the legislature this month. “What
they are doing to us is like what the Nazis did to the Jews.”

Trustee Edna Allen, a founding board member and former East St.
Louis public school official, said, “Cipfl could not have been able to
do this to any White community.”

A Troubled Past

Metropolitan’s troubles, like the other social ills that have
turned this once-integrated city into a drug-infested slum and one-time
U.S. murder capital, date back three decades.

East St. Louis has lived perpetually in the shadow of its bigger,
richer, and more prestigious neighbor across the river — St. Louis —
and somehow always come up short.

East St. Louis barely has a viable tax base. Although surrounded by
wealthy industrial plants, most of those companies incorporated their
own small towns to escape regulation and higher taxes. One of those
towns, in fact, has little more than the industrial plant, a liquor
store, two nightclubs featuring strippers, and one of this state’s
largest lottery retailers.

The blue-collar city was battered by a round of factory closings in
the 1960s that drove up unemployment. And it is the site of one of the
worst cases of White flight ever faced by a U.S. city.

In 1969, Illinois officials established what was then called State
Community College here as an experimental school financed with state
tax dollars rather than a local tax base. However, the college was
formed because the Belleville Area Community College District, a mere
ten miles away, had previously opened and formed an academic horseshoe
that left out East St. Louis and a string of poor surrounding
communities that were predominately Black.

Warrington Hudlin, a former State Community College trustee,
recalls allegations of racism were dismissed as nonsense. The decision,
officials said, was based on economic reasons.

“We decided to sue, but were told not to [because] we’d get State Community College,” Hudlin said.

The college has suffered from financial and management woes
throughout its existence. And critics have charged that it was little
more than a place for local politicians to hand out plum jobs to
supporters. According to Cipfl, that legacy continues at Metropolitan.

The board’s staff has run the small college since last spring, when
the state appointed a financial oversight panel to straighten out the
school’s budgets and contracts.

The board also appointed an eleven-member panel of experts earlier
this year to review Metropolitan’s situation and make recommendations
on its future. The panel found that prior to its takeover, the college
had only five full-time faculty and sixty-two adjuncts. However, the
college employed ninety-four administrators and staff — fifty-four of
who were full-time.

Among the report’s other major findings:

* The college lacks critical supplies and equipment, such as copy
paper, toilet paper, class schedules, and textbooks. No fire security
system was in place and many building locks were broken.

* Many classrooms in the college’s vocational skills center had
become nothing more than a dumping ground for broken and outdated
equipment.

* Enrollment has plunged to a total head count of 689 students and
a full-time equivalent count of 408 3/4 far below initial projections
that the college could attract 2,000 students.

* The college’s reported enrollment figures do not match reported
credit hours. For example, it reported 17.8 percent of its students
were enrolled in vocational courses such as allied health and
industrial courses. But no credit hours were reported for those two
areas.

* Courses that the college reported started out with 20 to 25
students fell to 10 students by midterm and plummeted to as few as two
to four by the end of the semester.

* The college’s finances were in such disarray that it could not
complete a first-year audit. The college had no accounting system and
few financial records.

* Relationships among trustees have become so strained that two
factions refused to even talk during meetings. No financial,
enrollment, program, strategic, or technology planning had been
conducted since before the college’s opening day.

The report also notes that during the review panel’s site visit,
several trustees cited the college’s employment of local residents as
an important factor in its continued existence. Allen, a Metropolitan
trustee, says that concern for jobs can be expected in a city like East
St. Louis, mired in so much hopelessness that many residents have
almost given up.

“They’re used to taking what they’re given,” she says.

An Uncertain Future

College officials and East St. Louis leaders allege that state
officials have not given them enough time to correct problems and have
ignored reform-minded trustees’ plans to straighten out the college.

“The problems are correctable,” Younge said in an interview with
Black Issues in which she also criticized Cipfl for arguing the case
for closure in the local media here.

“The people of the college district are being unlawfully divested
of property and voting rights in violation of state statutes and in an
insulting and unconstitutional way,” she said.

Younge also said she and other taxpayers are considering filing a
class-action lawsuit against the state board. And she plans to bring
the matter before the state legislature.

Meanwhile, Allen, the former head of the public school’s gifted and
talented program, complains that state-appointed staff running the
college have refused to meet with trustees. She and East St. Louis
Mayor Gordon Bush lost the first round in their lawsuit that claims
that the state board denied the college due process when it appointed a
financial oversight panel. An appeal is forthcoming.

Metropolitan trustees last month pleaded with the state board — to
no avail — to give them until May to fix things with the help of state
experts. The board’s closure vote was unanimous.

Metropolitan’s trustees even offered to voluntarily resign and turn
the college over to the state if they failed. But Cipfl said the state
board’s previous offers of assistance were rejected.

Younge and Allen lay blame for many of Metropolitan’s failures with
the college’s twice-suspended former president, Dr. Janet M. Finch, who
refused to even live in East St. Louis.

Finch kept her home hundreds of miles away — in Nashville, Tenn.
— and commuted in a college-bought Lincoln Town Car. Along the way,
she ran up more than $2,000 in cell phone calls.

Trustees suspended her without pay in April. In June, one member
switched his vote and the board reinstated Finch. In July, trustees
once again voted to suspend her — this time for good.

Finch is suing for about $200,000, which she says is owed her for
two years remaining on her contract. The contract states she can only
be fired for non-performance due to mental or physical inability.

Cipfl says state lawyers are studying the contract to determine if it really is that airtight.

Allen also accused Cipfl, the former president of Belleville Area
College before he moved to the state board, of having an ulterior
motive for wanting to close Metropolitan. She contends he has long
coveted the East St. Louis college, which has modern facilities, and
always wanted to annex it while president of Belleville.

Although Cipfl has denied these charges, he did say that East St.
Louis students would be better served by Metropolitan’s replacement and
predicts some programs still will be held on campus while others will
be offered at Belleville.

But Allen contends the state board plans to offer only a few
vocational, remedial, and General Equivalency Diploma programs at what
was once Metropolitan.

“How about some programs,” she says, “that let our people go on to
four-year schools and become nurses, or teachers, or doctors, or
engineers?”

COPYRIGHT 1998 Cox, Matthews & Associates



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