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Are charter schools illegal in St. Louis? The law works in mysterious ways

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 2, 2011 - Did the loss of population by St. Louis in the 2010 census mean that charter schools can no longer operate in the city?

That was the question raised last week by a member of the elected school board in St. Louis, and at first glance it appeared he might have a point. But second and subsequent glances showed that -- as with most questions involving urban education in Missouri -- the issue is far from crystal clear.

To start at the beginning:

On Friday, Chad Beffa, one of the seven members of the elected city school board, sent out an email to people involved in charter school operations in the city -- some of them with universities that have sponsored charters, some of them with the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, some of them with the St. Louis Public Schools and some of them involved in state government or education in other ways.

In his message, Beffa said:

"This is to advise all those who are responsible for charter schools and their applications, that currently the city of St. Louis has fewer than 350,000 inhabitants as determined by the latest official census count."

He then cited Missouri state law 160.400, which defines charter schools and where in the state they may operate. Since charters have been allowed in the state, they have been limited to St. Louis and Kansas City. Charter supporters have tried to expand that restriction, but so far they have not succeeded.

According to section 2 of the law, "Charter schools may be operated only in a metropolitan school district or in an urban school district containing most or all of a city with a population greater than 350,000 inhabitants."

As Beffa notes, the most recent 2010 census figures put the population of St. Louis at 319,294, clearly below the 350,000 threshold in the law cited by Beffa. As a result, he said in his message to education officials:

"At this time, I would ask for any interested party to cease processing any new charter school applications for the city of St. Louis, and for legal to inquire into the possibility of filing a cease and desist order on currently operating charter schools for the next school year."

He also asked Attorney General Chris Koster "to issue an opinion on the legality of charter school 'operations' to temporarily clarify this urgent matter while school is not in session." Further, he said that under his view of the law, all current charters "would continue to operate as magnet schools or 'pilot schools' under their existing charter, or the charter schools would cease operations if their board or sponsor so chooses."

What sounded like a pretty good case grew murkier later on Friday afternoon, when Mark Van Zandt, general counsel for DESE, responded to Beffa.

While 160.400 may indeed say what Beffa said it does, Van Zandt wrote, that is not the law that governs the situation involving charters in St. Louis. St. Louis, he said is not an urban school district, where the 350,000 population threshold would apply.

Instead, it is a metropolitan school district, which is defined in state law 160.011, section 6, as "any school district the boundaries of which are coterminous with the limits of any city which is not within a county" -- a common definition in Missouri law when legislators want a situation to apply only to St. Louis but can't do so by name.

So, Van Zandt concluded, the law about where charter schools may operate, as far as St. Louis is concerned, "will not change due to loss (of) population." Kansas City is not affected either because the latest census count for its population is 459,787.

But Beffa isn't through questioning the legality of charters in St. Louis. Asked by the Beacon Wednesday whether Van Zandt's explanation resolved his complaint, he said he is still looking into the situation.

Specifically, he said he is not convinced that the boundaries of the school district and the boundaries of the city are the same, and he is not sure that the boundaries of the St. Louis Public Schools are the same as the boundaries of the transitional school district established in 2007, when the state took over the St. Louis schools and put in place a Special Administrative Board to run them.

He said that "there are places inside the city that are in other districts." Asked to be more specific about where he is talking about, he said he needs to study the matter a little more before going public. "I have an idea," Beffa said, "but I don't want to get everyone up in arms yet."

The Special Administrative Board that was established by the state now has almost complete authority over operation of the city schools; the elected board to which Beffa belongs has limited duties, serving more as a shadow governing body than anything else. Members of the elected board have been outspoken against charter schools and against the school district being run by people who are appointed, not elected.

The law that established the transitional district and the SAB appears to back Van Zandt's view of the situation, not Beffa's. State law 162.1100, section 1, establishes "within each city not within a county a school district" whose boundaries "shall be coterminous with the boundaries of the city in which the district is located."

Further, another law that involves the quasi-definition of St. Louis protects it from losing status if it loses population. State law 1.100, dealing with laws and the construction of statutes, says flatly: "Once a city not located in a county has come under the operation of such a law a subsequent loss of population shall not remove that city from the operation of that law."

In any case, Beffa is not going to get any help from Attorney General Chris Koster. Though he requested an official ruling from Koster as an elected member of the city school board, a spokesman for the attorney general's office said that by law, the office may issue opinions only at the request of legislators, statewide elected officials, statewide department heads and county prosecuting attorneys.

And in case anyone is keeping track, it wasn't the 2010 census that put the city's population under 350,000. That occurred 10 years earlier, when the 2000 count said St. Louis had 348,189 residents.

Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.

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