JEFFERSON CITY - The court-appointed mediator for the St. Louis school district desegregation case told the Senate Education Committee on Wednesday that if the state wants to settle the desegregation lawsuit in St. Louis, it needs to ensure students there get $1,000 more in funding per pupil than other students get.
"If we want to achieve a settlement, we need legislation that provides enough money to make St. Louis financially viable," said William Danforth, former Washington University president and the court-appointed mediator for the case. "Without adequate funding, the parties won't agree."
Missouri has spent more in the last two decades on desegregation than any other state in the country -- $3 billion on court-ordered payments to the St. Louis and Kansas City school districts. The court ordered the payments after determining there was inequality in education among blacks and whites.
A settlement was reached last year in the Kansas City court case, but talks are in a holding pattern in the St. Louis case while the legislature tries to hammer out an end to the desegregation payments that is acceptable to the court, the 20 plaintiffs in the case, the state and the legislature.
Supporters of the extra funding for St. Louis and Kansas City say those school districts will collapse if the state doesn't provide some extra funding after the court-ordered payments end.
Legislators from rural districts balked at the $1,000 figure and the desegregation bill, which was written by a special interim committee. They said they'd rather take their chances with courts because the bill as it's currently written gives money to the two districts but doesn't require any accountability from them. Such opposition -- predominantly rural, Republican -- killed a similar bill last year.
"The administrative costs are ridiculous," said Sen. John Russell, R-Lebanon. "There's so much fat that needs to be trimmed. If we just hand them money, it's not going to change."
Sen. Morris Westfall, R-Halfway, said he was concerned there was no provision in the bill that would give other school districts a chance to apply for funding above the state's formula. He said he also opposes provisions in the bill to continue paying for 10 years for the voluntary bussing program that allows city students to attend county schools.
"The testimony we heard from parents (in St. Louis) is we're tired of bussing and spending money on tires and gas," said Westfall, a member of both the Senate Education Committee and the special interim committee.
The special interim committee, composed of House and Senate members, held a series of hearings last year across the state on desegregation and education issues. It finished its summary report in December, and some of its members introduced the bill that was heard by the Senate Education Committee on Wednesday.
Hearings on the bill will continue next Wednesday. Sen. Ted House, D-St. Charles, a member of both the education and the special interim committees, said despite some vociferous opposition to certain provisions, the bill was right on schedule.
"We're airing out extremely difficult issues, and this is a very healthy discussion," House said.