Published Online: April 2, 1997


Judge Decides State Funds for Desegregation To End in K.C.

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Concluding that a 12-year, $1.8 billion effort to desegregate the Kansas City, Mo., schools has fallen far short of the mark, a federal judge last week urged state education officials to step in and rescue the "floundering" school system.

In a complex ruling condemning city officials' stewardship of their schools, U.S. District Judge Russell G. Clark assured that court supervision of the district will continue by rejecting arguments by the state that the system had effectively remedied past discrimination against blacks.

But he agreed to let the state off the hook financially for fixing the remaining problems, approving a deal to cut off the state's roughly $100 million annual subsidy of the desegregation plan after 1999.

Since 1985, the state has spent more than $1.2 billion--on top of $600 million from local taxpayers--on what has become the nation's costliest effort to undo the damage caused by legally sanctioned racial segregation of a city's public schools.

Judge Clark said all the expense had yielded some tangible benefits in the 20-year-old case, including a network of impressive magnet school programs and state-of-the-art facilities.

But he concluded that much of the money had been misspent, that the district maintained a "lavish" bureaucracy, and that too many classrooms were characterized by poor teaching and little learning.

"The district's recent performance has been dismal at best," the judge wrote in his 59-page ruling.

Court Fight To Continue

The decision did not completely satisfy any of the parties to the protracted legal battle--the state, the district, or the black plaintiffs who originally brought the suit in 1977.

And it virtually assured that the court fight will continue. The case's tangled history has led to two U.S. Supreme Court rulings, including one in June 1995 that set the stage for the state's release from its funding requirements. ("In K.C. Case, Court Curtails Judges' Powers," June 21, 1995.)

Buoyed by that ruling, state Attorney General Jeremiah J. Nixon struck a deal with the district last spring calling for the state to be released from further financial obligation after paying $314 million by 1998-99. Judge Clark later increased that figure to $320 million. ("Mo., K.C. Reach Desegregation-Subsidy Accord," May 29, 1996.)

unparalleled and unprecedented efforts the state has made to correct injustices of the past and to meet every legal obligation of the desegregation order."

But Arthur A. Benson II, the lawyer for the plaintiffs, said he would likely appeal the portion of the ruling that absolved the state of financial responsibility.

Still, Mr. Benson said he was pleased with the judge's decision to maintain court supervision and to order that the district narrow the gap in test scores between black and white students by a specific amount by the end of 1998-99. He said he also favored the prospect of outside oversight of the district's management.

Despite its dressing-down by the judge, even the district found something to like in the ruling. By refusing Mr. Nixon's bid to have the district released from court oversight, the judge left intact a special local-tax surcharge for desegregation that provides about $74 million of the district's $308 million budget.

Losing that extra funding in addition to the special state desegregation subsidy would have proved devastating, district officials said.

Plea for State Help

Noting that the district faces a period of potentially drastic belt-tightening, the judge said in last week's ruling that he wanted to put Missouri Commissioner of Education Robert E. Bartman in charge of the district's affairs.

And he suggested that if Mr. Bartman did not step up to the plate, the court would take the unusual step of appointing a special master to oversee the 37,000-student system.

"A strong hand is needed to guide the district through the difficult waters that lie ahead," the judge wrote, adding that the school system "has lost the confidence of many of its staff, students, parents, and the community at large."

At week's end, Mr. Bartman said he had not decided whether to accept what he called the judge's "invitation." But he said he was interested in the challenge. "They're my kids, too," he said.

District leaders, meanwhile, said they would oppose any effort to elbow them aside.

"We are willing to work very closely with Dr. Bartman or whomever," said Edward J. Newsome, the school board president. "But we don't think that the statutory authority of this board should be usurped by anybody."

During the past year, Mr. Bartman has sought to focus attention on the problem of lagging scholastic achievement by African-American students.

In a highly controversial move, the commissioner pushed through regulations last year that require local schools to provide racial breakdowns when making their students' standardized-test scores public.

He also appointed a commission to report back to the state school board on ways to boost achievement among black students.

The new ruling is not the first time a federal judge in a desegregation case has turned to the state out of frustration with local officials. In 1995, the judge overseeing the Cleveland case ordered the state education department to assume direct control over the district and relegated the local school board to an advisory role. ("'Crisis' Spurs State Takeover Of Cleveland," March 15, 1995.)

In last week's ruling, Judge Clark did not spell out the parameters of any outside overseer's authority. But he said it should go well beyond guidance and include approval of budgetary decisions.

District officials said last week that they plan to ask the court to clarify that governance issue. Their motion will also ask the court to retract certain statements about conditions in the schools that district officials say are inaccurate.

Broad Shortcomings Cited

Judge Clark said district officials could not be trusted to scale back in appropriate ways, given their history of finding "much to cut in the way of school services, but little in the area of administration."

In his ruling, the judge charged that the district was hobbled by these shortcomings:

  • The lack of a "comprehensive, integrated educational and instructional plan," despite repeated prodding from the court.
  • A dearth of meaningful staff development in a district in which "there is a great deal of poor teaching and little learning in many schools."
  • Destabilizing turnover in superintendents and principals. The district has employed nine schools chiefs, including interim appointees, in the past decade.
  • No plan, again despite prodding from the judge, to assure school safety.
  • A chaotic budgeting process in which district leaders "simply throw large sums into various accounts" and allow actual spending to stray dramatically from the budget.

Mr. Newsome, the board president, said the district had already moved to correct some of those problems. But he said others stemmed from rulings by Judge Clark over the years that had forced the district to focus on integrating schools instead of improving educational quality. After handling the case since its inception in 1977, Judge Clark announced in January that he would relinquish it following this latest ruling.

Mr. Newsome and Henry P. Williams, the district's superintendent since last year, said the district would rise to the challenge of scaling back its programs while boosting student achievement. But Mr. Williams said it would not be easy.

"It's going to be very difficult, particularly after years of plenty," he said. "We now have to make do with those resources that are available. The cornucopia has gone empty."

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