The End of Deseg As We Know It

City schools face an uncertain future -- a crucial court settlement, a Feb. 2 sales-tax vote, a teachers' union opposed to the tax, accreditation tests this spring and the prospect of a state takeover. It could be a school year from hell.

At least one city school-board member is uncomfortable with being faced with the Feb. 2 sales-tax vote: "What happens if the sales tax doesn't pass? There's nothing in 781 that will guarantee that we have money if the tax doesn't pass. We just ran a bond issue in April (and) said, 'No new taxes.' Can we turn around and say, 'Give us tax money?' It puts us in a real awkward position."

Awkward or not, that is where the city school system finds itself. Given real-world options of approving a tax hike or throwing their school district back on the mercy of the court, voters who bother to show up on Feb. 2 will be forced to make that call. It is a decision that will have repercussions for years, for generations to come.

Because Danforth has had to play King Solomon in this melodramatic epic, he is hopeful, yet worried, about the chances for passage of the sales tax on Feb. 2.

"I don't think it will be easy. We have a very short time to explain to people a very complicated situation," Danforth says. "I know not everyone agrees with me, but I think if you really sit down and say what's best for the children and what's best for the schools and what's best for the teachers, I just think there's no question about it -- 781 is not perfect, but it's the best game in town by a long, long shot."

Another person involved in the negotiations puts it more forcefully: "If the city of St. Louis doesn't vote this in, that will be nuts. The opportunity to get $100 million in capital improvements, the opportunity to get $2 from the state for every $1 you tax yourself, forever? That's phenomenal."

For what it's worth, the powers that be likely will push for the tax. Danforth was head of a task force on school desegregation put together by Civic Progress, the group of CEOs of the St. Louis area's largest corporations. The task force announced its support of the program, and later Danforth was appointed settlement coordinator by U.S. District Judge George Gunn, who has since died. It is expected that Civic Progress will finance a campaign to pass the sales tax.

But if sending Danforth back to Judge Limbaugh with no settlement is basing the future of the area's public education on a crapshoot, then predicting what might happen on the Feb. 2 vote is a coin toss. In April, city voters approved city-school bond issues by a 78 percent majority. There was a small turnout, not much else on the ballot, and no tax increase involved, so it's chancy to draw conclusions.

Word is, supporters of the sales tax have conducted a poll that has revealed the proposal has a good chance of passing. But that's a poll, not an election. If there's an ice storm or a violent incident in a public school that week, who knows which way the vote will go?

Even if the proposal passes, the challenge before the city district will be to find places to cut the budget to make up for the shortfall from the current level of state funding of the deseg program. If it fails, the court case continues. Even if Limbaugh (who is uncle to radio talk-show host Rush Limbaugh) makes a ruling on the case without an additional hearing, appeals could take years.

The accreditation issue looms as a parallel set of real dilemmas for the city school district, as do the changes in the retirement system for city teachers. The change in retirement benefits was made to be more competitive with other school districts, Davenport says, which often pay 60 to 75 percent of a teacher's average salary from the most recent three years. But that increase in the city, to 60 percent from 37.5 percent, may have the unintended consequence of triggering more teachers' quitting.

The anticipation, or fear, is that more will make the leap this year. Although they are asked to announce by April 15, teachers could use sick days to delay making retirement official until the summer, thereby retaining health insurance. A mass exodus of retiring teachers is not good news.

"The numbers are too frightening to think about. There are lots and lots of principals and teachers waiting for June," says Davenport. "There are a lot of people who are eligible and ready."

So, just considering eventual accreditation problems and potential teacher retirements, city schools face an uncertain future. Even if the settlement works and the tax is passed, Davenport says, difficult times are ahead.

"That's what the parties would want you to believe, is that 'Now we can throw our hands up in the air and go back to what we were doing. I got your money, you got yours, let's go home.' But educating kids goes on; it's everyday. The attention we garnered is good, but it's not the end of what ails the St. Louis public schools."

And if the desegregation program is wound down improperly and students are treated unfairly, a familiar option may surface.

"It will only make somebody go back to court," says Davenport. "The door to the court does not lock when the case is settled. Just like when the Liddells went to court the first time, somebody will go back to court and say, 'This isn't fair.' And it will be appealed and appealed and appealed.

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