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School Desegregation

November 06, 1997
By: MARGARET MURPHY
State Capital Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY - Two decades and $3 billion after the Supreme Court determined that the state of Missouri should be responsible for paying to remedy the effects of intentional segregation in the Kansas City and St. Louis school districts, the state continues is effort to find some sort of way to get the courts out of control over the metro schools.

After weeks of hearing, a special committee of 18 House and Senate members began this week to draft a consensus of what the state's commitment to the districts should be.

"In the past, previous legislators have stuck their heads in the sand like ostriches," said Sen. Joe Maxwell, D-Mexico, a member of the Joint Interim Committee on School Finances. "It's been costly to the taxpayers. We have the opportunity to find a cost-effective solution to issues in this state."

Missouri has spent more on desegregation than any other state in the nation, said Mary Still, press secretary to Attorney General Jay Nixon. Still said 45 percent of the state's education spending goes to the Kansas City and St. Louis school districts, whose students compromise 9 percent of all Missouri students. In 1997, the state sent $47 million in desegregation funds to St. Louis and $110 million to Kansas City in 1996-97.

Still said Nixon believes the state has met the court's goals. "These programs were not designed to go on in perpetuity," Still said."We feel like we've met the obligations of the court order. We should return the duty of distributing the budget on education back to the legislature."

An out-of-court settlement will end the state's mandated desegregation payments to Kansas City in July, 1999. Reached in April, 1995, the settlement ends 19 years of litigation and 11 years of court-ordered desegregation in the Kansas City schools. According to the state attorney general's office, the settlement requires the state to pay $105 million for the 1997-98 school year and $99 million for 1998-99. That would conclude the state's payments and obligations.

Some legislators and urban leaders argue the state cannot completely pull out of the two districts, that they need continued assistance.

"If the St. Louis or Kansas City school district collapses, the repercussions would be dramatic and statewide," said House.

While Kansas City focused on building new schools with its court-ordered desegregation funds, a different tact was taken in St. Louis, where 14,000 inner-city students are voluntarily bussed to county schools and the city implemented magnet school programs.

In St. Louis, that left the city schools with a much deeper building-construction need than in Kansas City, St. Louis city school officials said at a recent hearing of the joint committee.

House expressed disappointment at the testimony -- that witnesses for the St. Louis City School District and the NAACP called for more state funds when, House said, he's trying to find ways to reduce costs.

An agreement on whether the state can legally phase out its financial assistance has not been reached in St. Louis. After a three-week trial in federal district court in March, 1996, Judge George Gunn Jr. ordered the parties involved to negotiate a settlement, and appointed a mediator, William Danforth, the former chancellor of Washington University, to oversee the discussions, which are still ongoing.

This fall, Nixon offered $304 million to the St. Louis public schools; $100 million for capital to build and renovate schools, $102 million to continue magnet schools in the city and $102 million to continue the busing program for 6 years. Still said Nixon's offer is the only one on the table thus far.

But at the legislative committee hearing, Nixon's proposal was criticized by the NAACP attorney for failing to provide a long-term solution. In addition, lawmakers have complained they were not consulted before Nixon, who is running for the U.S. Senate seat held by Kit Bond, made his offer at a St. Louis based news conference.

Funding is not the only issue the committee will address.

"I really consider money to be one of the easier parts," said Rep. Steve Stoll, D-Festus, co-chairman of the committee. "Improving educational results in Kansas City and St. Louis will be the biggest long-range concern we have."

"It's important to do something in St. Louis besides run kids around to ensure there are equal numbers in neighborhoods," said Sen. Franc Flotron, R-St. Louis County, a member of the committee. "We have to educate them."

Flotron said "everything is on the table" for the committee to consider. Flotron also said he believes that it will be impossible for the legislature to pass anything without ensuring some portion of the desegregation revenue goes to districts besides St. Louis and Kansas City.

House said one of the committee's goals is to try and quantify the costs of educating children in urban areas.

"That's the toughest political challenge, justifying spending more money in the cities," House said. "I represent rural schools and rapid growth suburban schools. They have needs as well."

House said the committee will submit a report by Dec. 15. It hopes to have a bill ready to introduce when the legislature reconvenes in January.

Last legislative session, at the urging of John Danforth, Missouri's former U.S. Senator and brother of Williams Danforth, lawmakers debated a proposal that would have continued some extra funding to the urban schools.

However, it ran into stiff opposition from rural and suburban lawmakers who argued they would not justify spending significantly more money per child form an urban district than is spent for children in their districts.

Ironically, one of the most outspoken legislative critics was Sen. Ted House - who now chairs the special committee charged with drafting another proposal.