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Missouri Judge Sets Steep Tax Hikes for Desegregation Plan

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Saying he was acting on behalf of "helpless" students, a federal judge in Kansas City, Mo., last week issued a sweeping order imposing substantial new income and property taxes through 1992 on area residents to finance components of a desegregation plan for the city's schools.

Lawyers involved in the case believe the property- and income-tax increases are the largest ever imposed by a judge in a desegregation suit. The tax increases will underwrite $187 million in capital improvements to schools, $35.7 million in pay raises for teachers, and other elements of the desegregation effort.

The ruling rejected a less costly proposal by the state, which is a party to the plan.

In his Sept. 15 order, U.S. District Judge Russell G. Clark noted that although he was "reluctant to take any action" to raise taxes, city residents' rejection of all school-bond issues and tax-levy increases since 1969 gave him "no alternative."

"A majority has no right to deny others the constitutional guarantees to which they are entitled, " the judge wrote in his 23-page opinion. "The court must weigh the constitutional rights of the taxpayers against the constitutional rights of [the] plaintiff students in this case. The court is of the opinion that the balance is clearly in favor of the students, who are helpless without the aid of this court."

Under the order, a 1.5 percent surcharge will be imposed on the state income taxes of city residents and other individuals and firms that work or do business in the city. The surcharge would raise the income tax on individuals from 6 percent to 7.5 percent.

The judge also ordered the city's property-tax rate to be increased from $2.05 to $4 per $100 of assessed valuation. In addition, he ordered the district to issue $150 million in capital-improvement bonds, which would be retired in 20 years using revenues from the income-tax surcharge.

Last November, Judge Clark approved a comprehensive desegregation plan that calls for the conversion of all of the city's high schools and middle schools and half of its elementary schools to magnet programs. In a separate series of orders in the case, he required the district to begin repairs in several schools and to develop a long-range capital-improvement plan.

The district submitted a plan last January calling for the renovation of 55 schools, the closing of 18, and the construction of 17 others, at a total cost of $187 million. The State of Missouri, which has been held liable for segregation in the district and is bearing a substantial share of the costs of integration, submitted an alternate proposal that would cost8only $61 million.

In his order last week, Judge Clark approved the district's plan, calling the state's alternative "unsatisfactory."

"If the [district's] schools underwent the limited renovation proposed by the state, the schools would continue to be unattractive and substandard, and would certainly serve as a deterrent to parents considering enrolling their children" in the new magnet programs, he wrote. He ordered the state and district to share the cost of the repair and construction projects.

In a separate part of his order, Judge Clark denied a request by the Kansas City Federation of Teachers, which was allowed to intervene in the case, to order the city school board to raise teacher salaries. Although he declined to mandate the raises, he noted that the new taxes would provide the district with sufficient revenue to raise teacher pay by $7.15 million per year through the 1991-92 school year.

"We are very pleased with the order," said Arthur A. Benson 2nd, the lawyer representing the district in the lawsuit. "It appears there will be sufficient revenue to cover the plan's costs, but it is difficult to estimate how much money the income-tax surcharge will generate."

Mr. Benson said lawyers for the state have indicated they plan to appeal portions of the judge's order.

Agreements Elsewhere

In other developments:

The Jefferson County, Ala., school system will continue to enroll 299 black students from Dolomite, an area annexed this summer by the city of Birmingham. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit in August overturned a lower-court ruling that would have assigned the students to the city schools unless they paid the $495 tuition charged by the county schools to out-of-district residents.

The black students are welcome and the lack of tuition does not impose a financial hardship on the county schools, which are 85 percent white and 15 percent black, said Inez M. Calhoun, spokesman for the county district. "More than anything else, the decision breaks down the integrity of school-district lines," she said. County school officials say they will appeal the ruling.

The Dolomite Civic League, with assistance from the naacp Legal Defense Fund, challenged the county's plan to reject the students, who had been attending county schools prior to the annexation. They said the move would have violated a 1971 court-ordered desegregation plan affecting the Jefferson County schools.

Dolomite officials had attempted to force the predominantly white city of Pleasant Grove to annex their community, in an effort to gain needed city services such as fire protection. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in January that Pleasant Grove had violated the federal Voting Rights Act when it refused to annex Dolomite while accepting applications from predominatly white areas.

Four previously dissenting suburban districts have agreed to join an out-of-court agreement in a lawsuit brought by the Milwaukee Public Schools, clearing the way for what civil-rights lawyers are calling the most complete settlement ever of a metropolitan-wide desegregation case. (See Education Week, Sept. 9, 1987.)

The districts, which are not located in the same county as Milwaukee, accepted an agreement that would dismiss the city school's lawsuit without prejudice, in return for which they would participate in the plan without having to meet any numerical student-transfer goals. If within five years 13 percent of their enrollment is made up of some combination of black transfers from the city and white transfers to the city, the Milwuakee schools would drop their right to reopen the lawsuit.

A "fairness" hearing on the plan is scheduled for Oct. 13 before U.S. District Judge Thomas J. Curran.

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