Amy Hilgemann and Rochell Moore were so close that each carried the other's business cards in her purse. To save time, just one of them would reach for the cards to hand out to reporters, parents or teachers.
Hilgemann and Moore were elected to the St. Louis Board of Education in 2001, promising to shake things up. They asked feisty questions at board meetings; they had alternate budget proposals that were shot down by the board's majority; they generally tried to challenge the stagnant status quo in the provisionally accredited school district at every opportunity.
For their trouble, the school board investigated them [Wilson, "Board Games," August 22, 2001]. Hilgemann and Moore sued the school board and won. Through it all, the two true believers -- one white, one black -- seemed as close as two people could be. It was life during wartime, and they were steadfast allies.
Things have changed. Hilgemann and Moore, the board members who have most pressed the urgent need for significant reform in the city's struggling public schools, are no longer allies. The timing couldn't be worse.
The April school-board election looms as one of the most important public votes in memory for the city and the metropolitan area. Four seats on the seven-member board are open, and Hilgemann has assembled a slate of like-minded candidates. Mayor Francis Slay is screening candidates, even chairing meetings on the topic, so that the mayor's office can back a slate.
But in an e-mail, Moore makes it clear that she is no longer affiliated with Hilgemann.
"I ran as a slate with Amy Hilgemann at the request of a political adviser," Moore states. "We have nothing else in common, and [I] do mean nothing! Her views, behavior, attitude and beliefs are the antithesis of mine."
Moore emphasizes that she wants to divest herself of her alter ego:
"Please do not associate me with Amy Hilgemann or anyone on the board as a voting bloc or group ... do not connect me with the Hilgemanns under any circumstances." Amy's husband is state Representative Thomas Hilgemann (D-St. Louis).
Then Moore plays the race card.
"The Hilgemanns do not and cannot speak for me, my interest nor for African-Americans. So please do not associate me with them ever again," she writes. "There were some who sought to marginalize me as a board member, drain my resources and benefit from my knowledge."
Moore then quotes the Bible, Isaiah 54:17: "... every tongue that shall rise up against me in judgment" will be condemned by God. Well, he is condemning a lot of tongues," Moore concludes, "including my fellow board members who attempted to slander and defame my good name and character."
The Hilgemann-Moore spat falls under the category of "just when you think things can't get weirder, they do."
Ignoring whatever personal issues lurk beneath the surface, at the very least the split changes the math for the postelection school board. If only two members of Hilgemann's slate are elected, that leaves her one vote shy of a majority because Moore is no longer inside that tent. Before the falling-out, Hilgemann and Moore were halfway home to a majority.
Hilgemann is downplaying the significance of Moore's apparent aversion to her.
"It means nothing," says Hilgemann. "I lost a vote, so I just have to get another one, don't I? But actually I haven't necessarily lost her vote. If she's down there just to vote against me, then we've got a real problem. She should be down there to vote for the right thing to do."
Hilgemann knew that Moore wouldn't be part of her Coalition for Excellence in Education back in June, when the coalition's monthly meetings started: "From our first meeting, our task was to go out and find a slate of people who are serious about going in and doing the kind of major reform in St. Louis public schools that Rochell and I had ran as reform candidates to do and had been completely stopped from doing."
One of the first times hints of a disagreement between Hilgemann and Moore was an incident in October 2001 over the participation of the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network at two events at Metro High School. A parent of a Metro student thought the program on gay rights was inappropriate. The parent, Debra Loveless -- who tried to attend the program with Moore -- was asked to leave by school security. Loveless sued the district in May, alleging that she had been discriminated against because of her religious beliefs. Moore agreed with Loveless, but Hilgemann didn't back Moore on the issue.
More recently, when Hilgemann questioned a contract the district held with a former board member, Moore asked whether Hilgemann would have raised her concerns if the ex-board member were not an African-American.
At that meeting, board member Bill Haas defended Hilgemann and challenged Moore for playing the race card. Haas often has voted with Hilgemann and Moore and regrets that things have changed.
"I have the greatest respect for both of them," says Haas. "They both are vigorous on issues they think are important to the district. Often their points have merit and deserve serious consideration. I just feel bad that they seem to be going in different directions, because they were strongest when they were going in the same direction."
Nobody with any sense has said changing the way the state's largest school district does business would be easy. But things will change. City schools face a 2004 deadline to become fully accredited or face severe consequences -- if not a state takeover, at least quicker, more drastic action by a compact seven-member board anxious for improvement.
Those wanting to come on board in April had better be ready for a long, strange trip indeed.