This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 21, 2011 - Leaders of the St. Louis Public Schools say a $96.1 million windfall from the settlement of the longstanding area school desegregation case would help them regain accreditation.
The money comes from the settlement paid by the state of Missouri as part of the federal court's agreement in the case in 1999. For the past several years, the city schools have been allowed to borrow part of that money to help cover annual budget shortfalls, with the sum repaid every year.
Now, according to a three-year program announced Monday by Superintendent Kelvin Adams and other parties to the desegregation suit, the city school district will be able to use $55.9 million to balance its budget, then use the rest of the money for programs such as early childhood, parent-infant interaction, teacher mentoring, magnet school transportation, technology and training principals.
Adams told a news conference at the Stix Early Childhood Center that the money will help bring to the school system financial stability, which was one of the three areas cited as problems when the state of Missouri took accreditation from the St. Louis schools in 2007. The other areas were stable leadership and academic achievement by students
Since the three-member appointed Special Administrative Board took over, turnover at the top of the district has reduced sharply; Adams recently signed a new three-year contract that would make him the longest-serving superintendent in many years. With the $96.1 million approved by a federal judge last week, the district will also be in much better financial shape.
Though academic achievement remains a problem, officials have noted improvement in that area as well, with the district gaining six points of the 14 needed for accreditation by the state.
Adams took note of the progress in all three areas, saying that the settlement "puts us in a better financial position. Our credit rating is now enhanced. You can check off finances and put it off to the side.
"Every single time I get the opportunity, I'm going to ask that we become accredited. Every single time."
The $96.1 million settlement was approved by the NAACP and the family of Minnie Liddell, whose lawsuit filed in federal court in 1972 led to the court-ordered voluntary school desegregation plan that began in 1980. The plan evolved through the years until 1999, when the federal court ordered the state to pay the city schools $180 million to settle the case.
The money was paid over a 10-year period and deposited into a special desegregation fund for capital projects. But as enrollment in the city schools shrank and fewer buildings were needed, city school officials sought to use it for other purposes.
William A. Douthit, attorney for the Liddell plaintiffs, said that the agreement to spread the money around grew out of a new willingness by city school officials to bring his clients into discussions about the best way that the funds could be used.
"Schools are more than just bricks and mortar," Douthit said in an interview after the settlement was announced.
"Rather than keeping the funds in escrow, this allows us to use them for the children who need it now. We were included at the table from the very beginning. It was a matter of moving forward in a collaborative effort."
Adams said he thought the money should be used to help as many students as possible, so his office wanted to work with the plaintiffs in the case to release it from the court's control and put it to good use. He noted that superintendents who preceded him were around for such a short time, they "often did not have knowledge enough to know who was on first, second or third. We're here to help all the children of the city of St. Louis."
He also noted the importance of training new principals.
"We have a great principal here," Adams said of the early childhood center, "but if she leaves, we have no one to replace her. We have to grow our own."
On the technology component of the spending, Adams said:
"Yes, it's important to know how to read. Yes, it's important to know how to write. Yes, it's important to know how to compute. But students in today's world need to know how to use technology and have access to it."
Michael Liddell, the youngest child in the family that brought the suit originally, said he hoped that the money could be used to build the school system up to a point that families would no longer feel they had to move out of the city to get a good education.
"The Liddell family is proud today because we have made good progress for the children," he said. "That's what this is all about."
Adolphus M. Pruitt II, president of the St. Louis NAACP, which also was a party to the suit, gave an indication of how long the legal action has been going on by noting that he was a member of the first graduating class at the Visual Performing Arts high school, back in 1977. Now, he said, he brings his granddaughter to school at the Stix early childhood center.
He said he hopes the money will help tame the "mean streets" of St. Louis so they no longer claim the lives of any of the city's young people.
"We're going to do whatever it takes," he said. "We have the SAB helping the district get back accreditation, and we have to help them."
He also paid tribute to the work of Dr. James A. DeClue, who died last week, for his longstanding work with the NAACP in pushing the desegregation case forward.
Rick Sullivan, who heads the SAB, said whether or not the board continues or control of the city schools reverts to an elected board is for others to decided.
"I think this board has worked well together," he said, "but any board is going to have to be productive, work together and focus on the kids."
In a statement, Chris Nicastro, commissioner of elementary and secondary education for Missouri, praised the settlement, saying:
"After many years of negotiations, we are pleased all parties have come to a positive solution which puts children first. Rather than continuing to hold state funds for building more unneeded school buildings, this agreement will allow St. Louis Public Schools to redirect and invest this resource into targeted educational services needed to boost student achievement and to regain accreditation."
Robbyn Wahby, who handles education policy for Mayor Francis Slay, called the infusion of money "an investment that will pay off in years to come. I'm confident we will see higher reading scores and fewer disciplinary problems.
"It never made sense to use that money only for desegregation purposes. What really made sense to us was to use the dollars in the best way possible."