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Mo., K.C. Reach Desegregation-Subsidy Accord

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Missouri would end its roughly $100 million annual subsidy of Kansas City's school-desegregation efforts by the turn of the century under an agreement reached last week.

The settlement between the state and the school district would bring to a close years of hostility in a case that has produced the nation's costliest effort to undo the effects of a separate educational system for blacks and whites.

But because the agreement requires court approval and is opposed by the plaintiffs in the case, it by no means heralds an end to nearly 20 years of litigation over integrating the city's schools.

In signing the pact, the district vowed to back the state's bid to be released from a federal court order that has required the state to pour about $1 billion into district desegregation efforts since 1985.

The state, in turn, pledged to pay the district $314 million over the next three years in exchange for freedom from further financial obligations after 1998-99. Missouri officials also promised to support a scaled-down desegregation plan that the district plans to ask U.S. District Court Judge Russell G. Clark to approve at a hearing June 3.

"This is a historic day for the state and the Kansas City school district," state Attorney General Jeremiah W. Nixon said last week. "For the first time they have agreed to an end for state payments for desegregation. We have agreed to three years and out."

Bankruptcy Predicted

Mr. Nixon and district representatives said they hoped to win support for the agreement from the families of schoolchildren who brought the case in 1977, as well as the Kansas City Federation of Teachers, which entered the case as a plaintiff in 1986.

But Arthur A. Benson II, the lawyer for the plaintiff schoolchildren, denounced the agreement and said he would oppose it in court. "It's a sure prescription for bankruptcy of the district," he said.

And Kathy Reed, the president of the union, which represents Kansas City's 3,000 teachers, said its members had concerns about the pact. But she said its members would reserve judgment while negotiations with the district over its revised desegregation plan continue.

"The difficulty is that there is nothing we can see that will provide for funding after that three-year period," Ms. Reed said. "There is a lot of potential for grief for us."

The state's hopes of eliminating the desegregation subsidy were given a boost last June by a decision in the U.S. Supreme Court. The court held that a lower-court judge overstepped his authority by requiring costly measures to attract white suburban students to district schools. (See Education Week, June 21, 1995.)

Encouraged by the high court ruling, the state asked Judge Clark last month to have the district declared unitary, or free of the vestiges of racial segregation. (See Education Week, May 8, 1996.)

The negotiations that led to last week's agreement began after that filing.

New Funding Sought

If the agreement is approved, the state will let the district decide when to seek release from court supervision by being declared unitary. Representatives for the district said it does not intend to seek that status in the near future.

Kansas City Superintendent Larry G. Ramsey said the 37,000-student district agreed to the accord in part to minimize the risk and expense of continued litigation. He said it would also give school officials a three-year window to come up with other funding sources.

"Obviously, if this is approved, we have to begin to develop a strategy immediately," Mr. Ramsey said.

This year, a third of the district's $330 million budget comes from state desegregation funds. Under the agreement, the state would provide the district with $110 million for the fiscal year starting in July, then scale back to $105 million in 1997-98 and $99 million in 1998-99.

Ms. Reed said the district needed to mount an intensive public relations campaign to increase city taxpayers' willingness to support the public schools.

But Mr. Benson said he doubted the district would secure the new revenue sources it is seeking. The result, he said, would be a drastic erosion in the impressive array of programs made possible by the court orders and the improved student achievement that has accompanied them.

"If this agreement is implemented, the programs that have made those achievements possible will come to a screeching halt," Mr. Benson said. "And middle-class parents, white and black alike, who have been attracted to the schools over these past 11 years will take their children out in months."

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