PEORIA — In the aftermath of the Governing magazine article that designated Peoria as being the one of the nation’s most segregated cities, community leaders are hoping that the notoriety will spur corrective action.
“It’s a wake-up call for the whole community,” said Martha Ross, Board President of Peoria Public Schools, the school district identified in the Governing article as the most segregated school system in the country.
“This is a serious matter. Our future depends on it. Here it is: 2019 and the article shows that we’re no better off than we were years ago,” she said.
Ross said she’ll suggest taking up the subject of the article as an agenda item for an upcoming school board meeting.
The Washington, D.C.-based magazine spent six months working on a story that examined the black-white divide in Illinois communities outside of Chicago (cited as the third-most segregated city in the country). In addition to Peoria, other cities were cited, including Springfield where the disparity of incomes between whites and blacks was reported as the largest discrepancy in the nation.
The Rev. Marvin Hightower, president of the Peoria chapter of the NAACP, said the article sheds a light on a problem that the African American community has felt along. “The broader community hasn’t recognized the problem,” he said.
While the school system was identified as the most segregated in the country, Hightower said it’s not a school issue alone. “This has to be a collaborative effort,” he said.
One of the points made in the Governing article was the fractured structure of government that exists in Illinois—6,963 units of local government, by far the most of any state.
“Illinois has about 850 school districts, and they come in all shapes and sizes. Some are citywide, covering everything from kindergarten to high school. Others just have one high school or a single elementary school and junior high,” the Governing article stated.
“Just south of Peoria’s airport stands Limestone Community High School in Bartonville. It’s the only school in the district but it accepts students from eight separate junior high schools, all from different districts,” noted the article.
Peoria Mayor Jim Ardis, among leaders interviewed by Governing, stated while he’d prefer to see the five school districts in the city consolidated to better serve students, he also sees a political reality. “I don’t see it ever happening in my lifetime, frankly, because whoever the state senator or representative that brought up the idea that they would like to consolidate the schools probably wouldn’t be around the next election when it comes time to do that,” said Ardis in the article.
For Denise Moore, the 1st District City Councilwoman, the magazine article is a call to action. “I met Monday with City Manager Patrick Urich, corporation counsel Don Leist and Farris Muhammad, the city’s diversity officer, to discuss the possibility of establishing two commissions, one on housing and one for employment, for the city,” she said.
“The city manager said he would bring this matter to council at the Feb. 26 meeting,” said Moore.
Housing is another issue that the Governing article focused on. “Local governments in predominantly white areas have made it difficult for many blacks to move to the areas of new development. Very few of the predominantly white suburbs that have sprung up in recent decades allow for apartment-style multifamily units to be built within their borders,” noted the Governing article that related that recent efforts to relocate residents of Peoria’s Taft Homes, a public housing development built initially for those returning from the Korean War, have failed due to resistance of area residents.
In the article, Ardis said Peoria bears a disproportionate share of responsibility for addressing the needs of low-income residents. “There’s been a reluctance from some of the smaller communities to share in the distribution of the people in need. It always has the tendency to fall on the big city,” he said.
Steve Tarter covers city and county government for the Journal Star. He can be reached at 686-3260 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him at Twitter@SteveTarter and facebook.com/tartersource.