Court Lets Stand Integration Plan For Kansas City

By Tom Mirga — May 03, 1989 4 min read

Washington--The U.S. Supreme Court last week effectively ensured that a multi-million-dollar school-desegregation effort in Kansas City, Mo., will continue as planned.

Without comment, the Court rejected the state of Missouri’s request that it examine whether lower courts overstepped their bounds by ordering a wide range of educational and capital improvements in the school district, including the creation of the nation’s most extensive magnet-school program. The state was directed to pay most of the improvements’ costs, which are expected to exceed $1 billion by 1999.

The Justices did tentatively agree to review the constitutionality of a court-ordered property-tax increase in Kansas City to fund the city’s share of those efforts.

But according to the lawyer for the black schoolchildren who some 12 years ago filed the suit, Missouri v. Jenkins (Case No. 88-1150), even if the Justices strike down the Kansas City tax increase, the programs will continue because other court orders will force the state to shoulder the entire financial burden for the desegregation effort.

“Either way we win,” said the lawyer, Arthur A. Benson 2nd. “We couldn’t be more happy.”

Michael J. Fields, an assistant state attorney general, reluctantly agreed with Mr. Benson’s assessment.

“It’s called a double-edged sword,” Mr. Fields said. The plaintiffs “think they have their hand in a deep pocket with no bottom and apparently, based on the Court’s decision, they’re right.”

Mr. Fields said the state will continue its fight to have the local property-tax hike declared unconstitutional, even if the result is a Pyrrhic victory that drains an additional $20 million to $40 million annually from the state treasury.

“The question of the federal judiciary’s taxation power is an important question that cannot be ignored, even if it is a principle that has some cost involved,” he said.

The state, however, could be denied the opportunity to present its case on the tax issue.

The plaintiffs argue the state’s entire case should be dropped because they claim the state filed its appeal with the Court after a 90-day deadline for such action had expired. The Justices ordered both sides in the dispute to file additional briefs addressing that question.

Far-Reaching Program

In a series of orders dating back to November 1986, U.S. District Judge Russell G. Clark has approved what many experts consider one of the most far-reaching desegregation programs in the nation.

The plan calls for the conversion of all of Kansas City’s junior and senior high schools and half of its elementary schools into magnet programs; the renovation of 55 schools; the closing of 18; and the construction of 17 others.

To enable the district to finance its share of the plan, Judge Clark in September 1987 ordered that property taxes in Kansas City be raised from $2.05 to $4.00 per $100 of assessed value and imposed a state income-tax surcharge within the city’s boundaries. The judge noted that city voters had rejected all school tax levies and bond issues since 1969.

Last August, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit struck down the income-tax surcharge but upheld Judge Clark’s orders in all other respects. (See Education Week, Sept. 7, 1988.)

‘Abuse’ of Power Alleged

In papers filed with the Supreme Court, the state contended that the lower courts’ orders in the case “are simply an abuse of federal remedial powers.”

“Every other school district throughout the country has been able to undertake desegregation without a court-ordered tax increase, and all have been able to do so without the sort of far-ranging programs funded by the court in this case,” the state maintained.

“Had the courts below not been so wedded to their unique plan,” it continued, “this constitutional confrontation might well have been averted.”

The state’s lawyers argued unsuccessfully that the lower courts’ orders, aimed at attracting nonminority students to the district and making its educational quality comparable to that of the neighboring suburban districts, are “not only without precedent, but ... they are without constitutional basis.”

“As such, they take the federal courts into areas reserved to other branches of government,” the state said.

The Justices apparently found the state’s arguments regarding the court-imposed property-tax increase more persuasive.

“It would be an astonishing proposition to maintain that Article III” of the Constitution, which established the Supreme Court and allows the Congress to create lower courts, “requires the states to share with the federal judiciary their sovereign powers over taxation,” the state said.

“In 200 years, no federal court ever before has assumed the power to mandate a hike in tax levies,” it continued. “Thanks to the courts below, the [Kansas City district] has now become a judicial enclave where the courts select the programs to meet their chosen goals, direct state and local officials to execute those programs, and then set the tax rates to supply additional funding. This arrogation of authority ... exceeds any known boundaries of judicial power.”

Review of Alar Suit Denied

In other action last week, the Court declined to review an appellate order dismissing a suit filed by the consumer advocate Ralph Nader to force the government to ban the use of Alar.

The chemical, which is sprayed on some apples to enhance coloring and ripening, has been linked to cancer.

A report issued last month by an environmental group on Alar’s hazardousness for children caused a number of school districts to remove apples temporarily from their lunch menus.

The suit was Nader v. Environmental Protection Agency (No. 88-1146).

A version of this article appeared in the May 03, 1989 edition of Education Week as Court Lets Stand Integration Plan For Kansas City