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Accord Set in Desegregation Case in K.C.

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A temporary truce has been declared in the long-running, bitterly contested Kansas City, Mo., school-desegregation case now pending before the U.S. Supreme Court.

A U.S. District Court judge approved the settlement last week within days after it was signed by state and district officials and the other parties in the case.

Although the agreement has no immediate impact on the case before the Supreme Court, it nonetheless was hailed by those involved as a critical step toward bringing an end to the dispute.

"This is a landmark agreement that could lead to a long-term and effective solution to the desegregation issue in Kansas City," Gov. Mel Carnahan said in a statement, calling the accord a "historic turning point for the state of Missouri."

Patricia A. Brannan, a lawyer representing the district, said the agreement does not resolve key points of contention, but instead provides an opportunity to negotiate out of court by setting a six-month cease-fire from legal skirmishing over the spring and summer.

"The parties have created a window for themselves within which they can come to the table and try to negotiate longer-term issues in the case," Ms. Brannan said.

"Everything is on the table. There is no issue--educational, funding, or legal--that is exempt from collaboration and negotiation," said Arthur A. Benson 2nd, a lawyer representing the minority plaintiffs in the case.

18-Year Battle

The 37,000-student Kansas City district is about 69 percent African-American, 24 percent white, 5 percent Hispanic, and 2 percent Asian.

Jenkins v. Missouri was filed in 1977 on behalf of the district's black students, more than two decades after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the state's law requiring school segregation.

U.S. District Judge Russell G. Clark, who still presides over the case, brought in the state in 1984 on the grounds that segregation had been fostered by its earlier laws and actions. A year later, the judge approved a remedial plan calling for massive capital improvements in the Kansas City system, new programs designed to boost student achievement, and the transformation of most of the district's schools into magnet schools in an effort to attract white students.

Since then, the state and district have spent about $1.3 billion on the desegregation remedies, with the state being asked to pay about two-thirds of the tab. The wrangling between the state and the district over the costs of the desegregation plan--regarded as the nation's most expensive--brought the case to the Supreme Court twice before the current appeal.

That appeal focuses largely on the question of whether desegregation requires closing the achievement gaps between black and white students. (See Education Week, Jan. 18, 1995.)

The High Court's decision also is expected to help resolve questions about financial liability for previous years' desegregation efforts.

Last week's agreement aims to avert more litigation over the costs of desegregation during the 1995-96 school year by holding the state to its payment and, in exchange, providing for that payment to be $22.5 million, or 25 percent, less than the nearly $191 million originally proposed. The district stipulated that it would trim $2.5 million from its administrative and nonteaching costs.

Causes for Optimism

"For the first time ever, we have achieved a reduction in the desegregation costs that Missouri taxpayers have had to bear," Governor Carnahan said in announcing the agreement, which he said likely will drastically reduce legal fees and court costs.

"For once, we have education policy for Kansas City being made outside the courtroom," Mr. Carnahan said. "The real beneficiaries of this are the children."

Both Mr. Benson and Ms. Brannan attributed the easing of tensions in the long-running court battle to the willingness of Governor Carnahan, who took office two years ago, to enter negotiations and work with Robert E. Bartman, the state commissioner of education, to address the needs of Kansas City students.

The Missouri legislature substantially boosted school funding in May 1993, shortly after the state's school-financing formula had been ruled unconstitutional. Last December, the state school board approved an education initiative designed to direct more resources toward St. Louis and Kansas City.

These developments have increased state funding to the district outside of the desegregation plan and thus enabled the district to assume a larger share of its desegregation costs, Ms. Brannan said.

The agreement last week also suspended the activities of the district court's desegregation-monitoring committee, which oversees the desegregation effort and related spending.

But Jay Nixon, the state attorney general, refused to sign on to the provision. "It is essential for the committee to continue monitoring expenditures at this crucial juncture in the history of the district," he argued.

In his order, Judge Clark held that the committee should not be involved in settlement negotiations and should largely suspend its activities pending his decision on its role.

The lawyers involved said it was too early to speculate on what impact the pending Supreme Court decision, expected by May, could have on the agreement. They expressed hope, however, that the new air of cooperation will continue, regardless of what the High Court decides.

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