• U.S.

Education: East St. Louis: Indicted

3 minute read

Over the years, East St. Louis, a dingy and decaying industrial town on the banks of the Mississippi in southern Illinois, has had more than its share of corruption, racial strife and machine politics. In fact the city (pop. 70,000) has been the virtual fiefdom of a firmly entrenched Democratic machine.

In this atmosphere, becoming an official in the East St. Louis school district, the largest employer in town, represents an opportunity to exploit rather than serve. Candidates are known to spend as much as $10,000 campaigning for an unsalaried seat on the seven-member school board—and a chance to control both patronage and the $32 million school budget.

Now the East St. Louis school system is involved in more than the usual amount of trouble. The president of the school board is under indictment on charges of conspiring to murder a fellow board member. In addition, the president, three of his cronies on the board, the school district’s business manager, its inventory-control officer and an insurance man (accused of laundering payoffs) have been indicted on 21 counts of extortion, receiving kickbacks, perjury and racketeering.

The current unpleasantness first surfaced publicly last April when Charles Merritts was re-elected school board president. “I’m the boss,” he boasted. “I ain’t going to stand for any criticism.” Merritts, 56, the town’s most influential politician and owner of a cab company, an insurance agency and several liquor stores, was used to having his own way.

Unfortunately, Board Member Clyde Jordan, 43, publisher of an East St. Louis weekly, did not take Merritts’ warning seriously enough: he became an outspoken critic of board policies. But Merritts apparently had been in deadly earnest. In September a federal grand jury charged that he had conspired to kill Jordan, using a St. Louis advertising salesman as middleman. The purported plot fell through when Merritts and the salesman tried to hire an undercover FBI agent as the triggerman. “They let a blond, blue-eyed agent pass himself off as a member of the Sicilian Mafia,” said U.S. Attorney Henry Schwarz, who is prosecuting the case against Merritts.

That indictment was only the beginning. A month later the grand jury handed up another indictment, charging Merritts and the six others with receiving $120,000 in kickbacks from a sheet-metal company and a school-equipment supplier. The second indictment also charged that Merritts tried to extort $30,000 from the equipment supplier by sticking a pistol in his chest.

No Contract. In the midst of such maneuverings, and the town’s benumbing poverty (more than half the population qualifies for food stamps), it is not surprising that the East St. Louis schools are a disaster. “At least half the buildings are antiquated,” says School Superintendent William Mason, who is also a Democratic precinct committeeman. The tax base is shrinking, and the district faces a $4 million deficit by the end of the year. Teachers (who have walked out on strike five times in the past ten years) are working without a contract. Almost all the district’s 23,000 pupils are black; many parents in the two white neighborhoods in the school system are vigorously trying to merge their areas with white suburbs.

Still, reform-minded Mayor James Williams, who defeated Merritts in the primary, is encouraged by the indictments: “Heretofore, people have not been prosecuted.” More indictments are expected—and for East St. Louis and its troubled school system that might not be bad news at all.

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