Equity & Diversity

Mo. Plan Would Strip St. Louis Board of Power

By Caroline Hendrie — December 10, 1997 4 min read

The St. Louis school board and superintendent would become the first casualties of the transition to a new post-desegregation era in Missouri, under a plan endorsed by a special joint legislative committee.

As the state moves to phase out its massive court-ordered subsidies of the St. Louis and Kansas City schools, the panel is calling on lawmakers to replace some of those lost funds with a proposed $1,000 per-pupil bonus in state aid.

But the catch, at least for St. Louis, is that the mayor would gain direct control of the schools. And in both districts, schools would have to get by on far less than they have become accustomed to.

The plan, which will become the basis of a bill taken up by the Missouri legislature in the coming months, is partially aimed at spurring a settlement of the 25-year-old St. Louis desegregation case. Another purpose is to prevent a collapse of the Kansas City system, which is slated to lose a third of its budget in two years because of a cutoff of state desegregation aid.

“What we were attempting to do was to show that the state was willing to act in a responsible way once the court settlements were reached,” said state Rep. Stephen M. Stoll, a Democrat and the co-chairman of the bipartisan committee on desegregation and school finance. The panel, which legislative leaders named last July, agreed on key recommendations late last month and is expected to issue its final report next week.

Cleveland Hammonds

Under the plan, Mayor Clarence Harmon of St. Louis would appoint a chief executive officer to replace Superintendent Cleveland Hammonds. The 12-member elected school board would be relegated to an advisory role for five years, and then replaced by a new seven-member board elected from various subdistricts instead of at large. And tenure for principals in the city schools would be eliminated.

Reluctant Mayor

A spokeswoman for the mayor said last week that while Mr. Harmon would not “shirk responsibility,” he was extremely reluctant to take charge of the 44,000-student district.

Other elements of the plan call for authorizing the state’s first charter schools, and for making them easier to form in St. Louis and Kansas City than in most other districts.

In school systems with graduation rates below 65 percent, charters could be granted by public universities, the state school board, the local school board, and, in St. Louis’ case, the mayor. In other districts, only the local school board could do so.

In St. Louis, the graduation rate for the class of 1997 was just 37 percent, a state education department official said. Kansas City’s figure was 51 percent.

The state would also continue some of its subsidies of St. Louis’ extensive city-to-suburb student-transfer program for at least a decade, under the panel’sproposal.

To reduce busing costs from the current level of $27 million a year to an estimated $18 million a year, the committee recommended carving the city into zones and allowing students to transfer only to suburban schools paired with their zones instead of to any participating school.

Under the voluntary transfer program, the nation’s largest, some 13,000 inner-city students attend suburban schools; about 1,500 suburban students come to city magnet schools.

State Sen. William L. Clay, the St. Louis Democrat who is pushing the governance change, criticized the district school board as being unresponsive and neglecting nonmagnet schools. He said the proposal was inspired by changes in Baltimore and Chicago, which are both now run by a CEO.

Superintendent Hammonds faulted the proposal last week for both its funding and governance provisions.

He said the $1,000 per pupil in extra aid would be insufficient to prevent the dismantling of the city’s highly regarded magnet schools and to address the district’s construction and programming needs in other schools.

As for putting the mayor in charge, Mr. Hammonds said he saw “no clear-cut evidence” that it would improve school performance.

Extra Costs Cited

The panel’s proposal comes just weeks after state Attorney General Jeremiah W. Nixon withdrew a proposed settlement offer in the St. Louis case. (“Mo. Loses Bid To End St. Louis Desegregation Plan,” Oct. 8, 1997.) Negotiations are continuing under a court-appointed settlement coordinator.

Last spring, a judge in the Kansas City case approved a $314 million settlement that will end the state’s roughly $100 million annual desegregation subsidy there in 1999. Since then, the 36,300-student district has been scrambling to chop its $302 million operating budget.

Kansas City would stand to get about $32 million under the $1,000-per-pupil aid proposal. St. Louis would get about $41 million, far less than its roughly $70 million state desegregation subsidy. The panel said the extra aid was justified by the greater challenges in urban schools, including concentrated poverty and language barriers.

A strong dissenting voice on the panel came from Republican Rep. Morris Westfall. He said schools in his rural area typically spend less than $4,000 per pupil, compared with more than $9,000 in Kansas City and more than $8,000 in St. Louis.

“I don’t think that’s fair,” he said. “I want students treated more equally regardless of where they live.”

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