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St. Louis, Missouri Weigh Settlement In Dispute Over Desegregation Effort

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New talks between the long-antagonistic St. Louis school district and Missouri state officials have raised hopes of an eventual end to court supervision of school-desegregation efforts in metropolitan St. Louis.

A tentative "settlement offer" secretly proposed to district officials by the state in February would, in effect, allow the state to ease its way out of its desegregation obligations by providing $173 million for local school and housing needs over several years.

The state plan, which has drawn both interest and skepticism from St. Louis school officials and their suburban counterparts, was leaked to the press shortly after moderate candidates defeated a strongly anti-busing slate in the city's school-board elections this month. (See Education Week April 10, 1991.)

Missouri's deputy attorney general, James B. Deutsch, last week described the proposal as "part of a less acrimonious relationship that's been developing for over a year" between the St. Louis board and the state government.

"The board seemed to want to have a more cooperative effort to promote quality education and local control, instead of control by the federal courts," said Mr. Deutsch, adding that he was first invited to meet board members several months ago.

"It's a sign of progress that we're talking," agreed the Rev. Earl E. Nance Jr., president of the city school board.

"It used to be that there were hostilities. The state was hostile, and we were hostile because the state was hostile," Mr. Nance said. "I hail the progress, that something has come out and that we're communicating."

Under federal-court pressure, suburban districts joined with the city schools in 1983 in implementing a voluntary-desegregation plan that now transfers some 12,600 city students to suburban schools and brings some 850 suburban students to city magnet schools. As part of the agreement, the state pays for transportation.

A separate plan governs desegregation within the St. Louis system.

Drafted by Attorney General William Webster, the new proposal calls for the state to give the city dis4trict extra annual aid of $746 for each of the district's 43,800 students for five years, starting in the 1991-92 school year. An additional $10 million in state aid would go for unspecified local housing needs.

In return, the state would phase out its financial support for student transportation under the voluntary-transfer plan. The proposal calls for acceptance of no new transfer students as of 1992-93, when the number of pupils involved in interdistrict transfers is expected to reach 15,000. The state would continue to pay for transfer students already enrolled at that point.

The federal judge who is overseeing St. Louis's desegregation efforts, while not commenting on the proposal now under discussion, voiced satisfaction at the more amicable climate between the state and local officials.

"When those two parties are talking together, that's a good sign," U.S. District Judge Stephen N. Limbaugh said in an interview.

"Before this time, everyone only talked with each other when they had to," he said. "It's a step in the right direction when the people obligated to pay are trying to work something out."

However, the judge cautioned, "that doesn't mean it's going to be settled" immediately, or that any proposal currently on the table will be adopted in the end. Furthermore, he noted, some 30 parties to the case must concur in a final agreement, which also needs court approval.

Deputy Attorney General Deutsch said the St. Louis situation has been seen in a new light since the U.S. Supreme Court's January ruling in the Oklahoma City desegregation case. The High Court said districts might be freed from court-supervised desegregation after doing their best to eliminate vestiges of discrimination. (See Education Week, Jan. 23, 1991.)

As a result, school-board members in St. Louis "are beginning to see that desegregation programs do not go on forever," Mr. Deutsch said.

Locally, "it is not, perhaps, that segregation has been eliminated to the extent practicable at this time," he said. "But what we have is a process in place that will work toward [producing] a desegregated or unitary district" by the time the state seeks to bow out.

Whether others will agree with the state is unclear.

St. Louis school-board members are wary of accepting anything "not conducive to equitability in the St. Louis public-school system," Mr. Nance said. "We just don't jump on the first thing that comes out."

"We hope that in the next two or three years," direct court scrutiny of both the districtwide and the interdistrict desegregation plans could end, he added. Yet, he cautioned, "the money still needs to be there. ... A whole series of issues ... have to be addressed to be sure that we're not left out on a limb, if and when it happens that court supervision ends."

Since the beginning, John Patrick Mahoney, the school board's vice president, added, "there have been repeated attempts by the state to see its way out of the financial burden imposed" by desegregation.

Key parts of the court-supervised remedy, including establishment of magnet schools, repairs to 110 St. Louis school buildings, and institution of smaller classes, "are in our grasp now," Mr. Mahoney said. ''Once those are in place, we can petition legitimately for unitary status and a positive resolution of the case."

He and Mr. Nance noted that, in addition to the election of the moderate school-board slate, voters approved a $131-million bond issue and tax-rate reforms, expected to help in building repairs and similar work to upgrade district facilities.

According to Charles E. Burgess, the spokesman for the St. Louis district, "there are a lot of implications" to any acceptance of the state's plan. For example, he said, if the nearly 13,000 students now attending suburban schools return, "we're going to have to have a place to put them."

Officials of some of the 23 suburban districts involved also foresee problems.

"I think we're all very skeptical that the Webster plan can be carried out" as quickly as the attorney general believes, said Thomas Keating, superintendent of the 5,200-student Kirkwood schools.

Earl W. Hobbs, superintendent of the suburban Clayton district, described Mr. Webster's plan as an "opening gambit" for negotiation.

"If the state withdraws financing precipitously," he warned, "the whole [desegregation] plan would collapse, I think."

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