On the Brink of Collapse

Middle school and high school
Subject: Government
Time: One to two class periods
Preparation: Have class view "Eagle Pass" and "Chelsea," in Hard Choices, Act 4, 1:02:47 on The American Promise videotape

Read the following description and discuss how to manage the challenges before this community:
  • Located across the river from Boston, your community of 30,000 has been suffering economic decline for the past two decades. Your town is known as the poorest community in the commonwealth.
  • The makeup of the community is changing. In 1990, the Hispanic population was 40 percent and the Asian population was 10 percent. In 1980, the Hispanic population was 20 percent and there were only a few Asians. The remainder of the community includes descendants of English settlers who predated the Pilgrims, along with residents of Irish, Italian, Jewish, Polish, and French-Canadian origin. Until a disastrous fire in the 1970s, most of the property was owned by Jews.
  • The public schools are 85 percent non-Caucasian. In 1989, the school board relinquished responsibility for running the school system to Boston University. Three years after the takeover, the drop-out rate is still over 50 percent -- the highest in the commonwealth.
  • Of the 16 city officials, only one is a minority group member.
  • A 1991 survey of city residents indicated that half were unemployed, and the half with jobs didn't make enough money to meet family needs. One-third of the residents lacked a high school diploma; three-fourths needed language training.
  • The city has a history of corruption. The last four mayors were discharged, either for paying off drug dealers or for having a hand in money laundering.
  • Now the city faces bankruptcy. The budget of $50 million is $10 million more than the available tax revenue.

What steps would you take in order to strengthen the community?

What do you do when nothing works?

Read the following description and discuss how to manage challenges before this community:

You live in a poor, isolated border town with a population of 30,000. In this town, the only good jobs are public-sector jobs.

In your community:

  • Most of the citizens distrust each other and are constantly bickering.
  • Public-sector jobs are the only good jobs, although people are usually elected and defeated at regular intervals. The rest of the population is poor. Unemployment is at 30 percent.
  • The jail fails to meet minimum state standards.
  • The Environmental Protection Agency closed down the local landfill. Garbage is now trucked out of town at great expense. Two city workers died while working on the sewer system.
  • Fumes from the local sewage treatment plant keep customers away from the community's golf course.
  • The city agreed upon the site for a new bridge across the border, then changed its mind. Plans have been stalled for a decade while daily traffic jams clog the old bridge.
  • The local judge raised her own salary and reduced the salaries of her elected political opponents. The judge took away funding from the sheriff's department because she disliked the sheriff. Now the sheriff's department has only one working patrol car.
  • The schools have so little money that they had to ask for a waiver to spend less on each pupil than the state-imposed $22 per pupil limit. At the same time, the school board had to pay $160,000 to buy out the contract of a superintendent who politically opposed the president of the school board.
  • Local papers make no clear line between reporting and editorializing, which adds fuel to local animosities. A local man summed up the situation: "The people hate all politicians. You know what we say? 'Do not approach a horse from the back or a bull from the front or a politician from any direction.'"

If you lived in this town, what would you do?

What steps would you take to restore the community?

The Next Step

What is the proper role of the government? What are the duties of a citizen?

This is the central question at stake as the citizens of Eagle Pass, Texas, struggle to climb out of their "political slump."

The citizens of Eagle Pass are divided about what role the government should play. They have no idea how to fix what has gone wrong.

To what extent should government set the agenda for reform? To what extent should government follow the will of the people? What role should the people play in fixing Eagle Pass?

Douglas E. Miller
Fremont High School
Sunnyvale, Calif.

Jeanne Kish
John Marshall High School
Cleveland, Ohio

Lora V. Murphy
Center for Learning
Rocky River, Ohio

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