Court motion to recover millions of dollars from charter schools continues to spark anger
Seventeen years ago, a group of black parents, the school district, the U.S. Justice Department and others came to an agreement that was intended to put the funding of school desegregation programs forever in the hands of city taxpayers.
Now, they say, the state has violated the agreement by indirectly sending more than $42 million of desegregation money over 10 years to charter schools — money they say should be returned.
It’s an argument filed in an April 11 federal court motion that has touched a nerve among charter school parents and organizers, who could potentially lose their schools if the plaintiffs prevail.
Charter school supporters have begun a social media campaign urging Superintendent Kelvin Adams to “Drop the Suit.” A parody Twitter account for Adams began sending out sarcastic apologies for attempting to bankrupt the city’s 35 charter schools. District officials on Monday were working to have the account taken down.
“If they win this, it will be devastating,” said Marshall Cohen, executive director of Lift For Life Academy, a middle and high school and the oldest charter school in the city. “We wouldn’t be able to continue.”
The action is not a lawsuit against charter schools. It is a motion that seeks to enforce the terms of a 43-year-old case that involved concerned parents — known as the Liddell plaintiffs — who sued on behalf of their children seeking desegregation in St. Louis schools.
That year, voters approved a 2/3-cent sales tax to pay for what had become the most expensive school desegregation plan in the nation. The agreement called for $60 million from the sales tax and resulting state aid to go to the district. The tax revenue was intended for district programs specified in the settlement agreement, such as magnet schools, full-day kindergarten, preschool and interdistrict busing for black students to predominantly white suburban schools.
The agreement, approved by then-District Judge Stephen Limbaugh, named the tax as a condition of his approval.
“Furthermore, the revenues generated by the sales tax shall be paid directly to, or assigned by the Transitional District to City Board,” Limbaugh’s memorandum says, referencing the district and the board that governs it.
The litigation is “not an attack on charters,” said Adolphus Pruitt, president of the St. Louis NAACP, who is among the plaintiffs. It’s an attempt “to honor the wishes of voters when they approved the sales tax,” he added.
The lawsuit filed last month by St. Louis Public Schools seeking $42 million in reimbursements for desegregation funding offers a convincing and probably winnable legal argument about how the district has been short-changed for years. But that doesn’t make the lawsuit right. Officials owe an explanation to taxpayers on why this suit was necessary and how the district will deal with the extreme disruption it could cause.