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Suit seeks to allow charter schools to acquire closed city school buildings

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 1, 2009 - Multi-millionaire Rex Sinquefield and lawyer W. Bevis Schock have filed a suit today in federal court to remove the deed restrictions that now bar alternative educational uses -- such as charter schools -- for closed public school buildings owned by the St. Louis Public School District.

Put in place in late 2007, the deed restrictions prohibit buyers of the closed school buildings from reopening them as schools for 100 years.

"These deed restrictions do nothing to help the poor and underserved children of the city of St. Louis," said Sinquefield in a statement. "In addition to denying young people an important educational opportunity, they contribute to the economic instability of our neighborhoods and create a dangerous situation for families."

Sinquefield and Schock are both involved in the region's charter-school movement and see the restrictions as "a direct attempt to prevent charter public school expansion" in the city. They also note that the city schools are facing hefty budget shortfalls and say that selling the closed buildings could provide the district with needed cash.

They also note that the district's enrollment has declined from 45,000 students 10 years ago to less than 27,000 currently.

Patrick Wallace, executive director of communications for the school district, said Wednesday that district officials had yet to receive the suit "so it would be improper to comment on it."

As soon as it has a copy of the suit, the district will have its lawyers review it, Wallace added.

At least three new charter public schools are planned to open in the city next fall. Charter school advocates say that finding a suitable building is often one of the most challenging problems, and they see the city's closed schools as offering some of the best options. But the deed restrictions are a key roadblock.

Charter-school allies in the state Legislature also have taken notice of the restrictions and recently called for changes.

Josh Schindler, the lawyer for Sinquefield and Schock, said there was no significance to the timing of today's court filing other than "a general sense that something needs to be done to move the ball forward."

The aim is to get a judge to strike down the deed restrictions or to persuade the current board to remove them, Schindler said. The restriction was put in place by a previous board in late 2007.

Sinquefield and Schock are both city residents and expect to be joined by other plaintiffs, Schindler said.

Editor's note: Bevis Schock is a regular contributor to the Voices section of the St. Louis Beacon, and Rex Sinquefield's charitable foundation has donated money to the Beacon.

Jo Mannies has been covering Missouri politics and government for almost four decades, much of that time as a reporter and columnist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She was the first woman to cover St. Louis City Hall, was the newspaper’s second woman sportswriter in its history, and spent four years in the Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau. She joined the St. Louis Beacon in 2009. She has won several local, regional and national awards, and has covered every president since Jimmy Carter. She scared fellow first-graders in the late 1950s when she showed them how close Alaska was to Russia and met Richard M. Nixon when she was in high school. She graduated from Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana, and was the daughter of a high school basketball coach. She is married and has two grown children, both lawyers. She’s a history and movie buff, cultivates a massive flower garden, and bakes banana bread regularly for her colleagues.

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