Taxes, Transfer Program on the Table in St. Louis Desegregation Settlement

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When he signed a recent bill aimed at ending court-ordered school desegregation in Missouri, Gov. Mel Carnahan hailed it as "a monumental piece of legislation." The measure's final outlines, however, are scarcely set in stone.

Conceived as a tool for extricating the state from court-ordered desegregation in St. Louis, the new law erects a framework for continuing the major elements of the city's nationally known urban-suburban transfer program once federal oversight ends.

Several key provisions, though, will not take effect unless a settlement is reached to get the state off the hook in the 26-year-old case. And other features of the bill can be scrapped or modified during negotiations

"Nobody knows what the final thing will look like," said Cleveland Hammonds, the superintendent of the 46,000-student St. Louis district. "Everything is on the table."

Riding on the settlement talks, among other provisions, are:

  • Funding, governance, and educational programming in the troubled St. Louis district;
  • Millions of extra dollars for districts statewide, thanks to changes in the funding formula aimed at benefiting districts with large numbers of poor students and steep local tax rates; and
  • The transfer program for St. Louis and 16 nearby suburbs, which many integration advocates view as a flagship of interdistrict desegregation efforts nationally.

All Eyes on St. Louis

The legislation, which the Democratic governor signed in late June, sets a March 15 deadline for settlements that release the state from court-ordered desegregation spending in St. Louis and Kansas City. The state has spent about $3 billion since the mid-1980s to remedy unconstitutional school segregation in those cities.

Since a federal judge has approved such a deal in Kansas City, all eyes are now on St. Louis. While some potentially deal-breaking issues divide the parties there, many analysts believe the stage is set for an end to litigation. ("Judge Decides State Funds for Desegregation To End in K.C.," April 2, 1997.)

"We think that this is a one-time, tremendous opportunity to resolve the case," said John R. Munich, the state's deputy attorney general. William L. Taylor, a Washington-based lawyer who represents the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in the case, shares that view.

Cash a Concern

For St. Louis school leaders, money heads a lengthy list of obstacles to such a deal. The city currently receives $70 million to $75 million annually in court-ordered desegregation payments. To help replace some of those funds once the case is settled, the law authorizes about $45 million in new state aid for the city and lays out a plan for raising local taxes by about $21 million annually.

But because of a provision that rewards districts with high local tax rates, much of the state replacement funding would become available only if St. Louis voters agree to the tax increase. Even in this best-case scenario, the district faces a net loss of $25 million to $30 million in annual state aid under the law.

The two African-American state senators who represent the city have clashed over the legislation, in part because of the tax issue.

And Sheryl H. Davenport, the president of the local affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers, said the proposed tax increase helped persuade the union to fight the bill.

Observers say the best hope for getting a yes vote is a settlement that lays out a credible plan for improving city schools. On the other hand, a settlement is unlikely without financial assurances for St. Louis once the court pulls out. Kenneth C. Brostron, the St. Louis schools' general counsel, predicts the answer lies in making any legal deal conditional on a referendum's approval.

Transfers at Stake

Among the other obstacles to a settlement is continuation of the transfer program, the largest of its kind in the country. Some 13,000 African-American students from St. Louis attend schools in 16 predominantly white suburbs, while 1,400 white suburban students are bused to city magnet schools.

Lawmakers say they intended to provide enough state money to maintain those exchanges. But some school officials question whether the law does that. Moreover, the legislators left unaddressed exactly how money would be distributed among districts.

Another potential impediment is the law's requirement that each participating suburb hold a referendum six years after court control ends on whether to keep taking city students. Mr. Taylor, for one, said he sees no reason why districts should have that option.

William H. Danforth, a former chancellor of Washington University in St. Louis, has been appointed by the court to coordinate a settlement. And among those hoping he succeeds is Alpha Nickelberry, 18, who graduated from high school in the suburban Lindbergh district last spring.

"I hope in my heart that it continues," he said of the transfer program. "If not, you're going to have kids who are all the same going to certain schools, and they're not going to be ready to go out into the world.''

Vol. 17, Issue 43, Page 8

Published in Print: August 5, 1998, as Taxes, Transfer Program on the Table in St. Louis Desegregation Settlement
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