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Ferguson Commission visits St. Charles County to share ideas

A tale of two counties

St. Charles County officials recently gave the Ferguson Commission a long list of programs and collaborations that have worked well at times in dealing primarily with children’s issues similar to those in North St. Louis County. And St. Charles County Executive Steve Ehlmann also offered an opinion on why he’s hopeful that some of the issues facing St. Louis County may not cross the Missouri River into St. Charles County.

The commission, formed by Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon, is examining the social and economic issues that may have contributed to the unrest in Ferguson and surrounding communities following the death of Michael Brown, who was shot by a Ferguson police officer. The goal is to issue a report to the governor this fall.

On June 8, at a meeting at St. Charles High, the commission met with St. Charles County representatives to gather input on issues like children’s well-being and citizen and law enforcement relations.

The Rev. Starsky Wilson, commission co-chair, said St. Charles County ranks high in dealing with issues involving children’s welfare. But the county – like the rest of the St. Louis region and nation – still faces major challenges.

“Twenty-five percent of the population of the region faces a number of negative trends when it comes to the investment in the future, even here in St. Charles,” Wilson said.  “One in five youth in Missouri live in poverty, two in five African-American children still live in poverty in this state.”

St. Charles County officials who spoke discussed what they are doing to confront those trends, ranging from providing opportunities for police to interact with the public and schoolchildren, to trying to limit the number of young people entering the juvenile detention system, to improving academic achievement, to combatting heroin addiction.

St. Charles Mayor Sally Faith said city police officers routinely visit schools and have “coffee with a cop” meetings where residents meet and talk with officers.

St. Charles School District Superintendent Jeff Marion outlined his district’s efforts to close the “achievement gap” through a standards-based grading system that helps to pinpoint students with academic problems, a truancy program and a program involving the community to help identify hunger and other issues for individual students.

“If you want a good school district you have to have a good community; if you want a good community you have to have a good school district,” Marion said.

Craig Leavell, executive director of the Boys & Girls Club of St. Charles, said that organization, which has centers in St. Charles and in the St. Peters-O’Fallon area, serves 1,500 youth, ages 6-18. The club provides not only sports but a reading program and served 32,000 hot meals last year.

“We’re more than just a swim and gym club,” Leavell said.

Like others in attendance, Bruce Sowatsky, executive director of the county Community and Children’s Resource Board, said his organizations wants “to be part of the solution.”

“If we can assist in finding solutions for our neighbors in North County, we want to help,” Sowatsky said.

For his part, Ehlmann spoke about the differences between St. Louis and St. Charles counties, particularly in the number of municipalities each contain and the amount of available resources each municipality has for programs such as school resource officers among others.

“I tell (St. Louis) Mayor (Francis) Slay and (St. Louis) County Executive (Steve) Stenger that my office is closer to Ferguson than theirs,” Ehlmann said. His office is in the 110-year-old county court house on a bluff overlooking the Missouri River in St. Charles. “We spend a lot of time looking out the window and thinking how we can duplicate the success of St. Louis County and how can we avoid some of their problems.”

St. Charles County and its seven municipalities all have some nice neighborhoods and expensive housing, and some low-income neighborhoods. Looking at a map developed by the East-West Gateway Council of Governments that shows the location of affordable housing in the region, Ehlmann said the red dots that indicate expensive housing are all over St. Charles County, but they are almost all in the western and middle portions of St. Louis County.

“I’m very hopeful in the future that because we have the dispersion of low-income people around the county, we won’t have the problems that we are looking at (in St. Louis County),” he said.

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