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Charter school parents appeal judge's ruling in education funding suit

LeDiva Pierce with her daughters Alfreida (left) and Unique. Pierce is one of two charter school parents seeking to intervene as plaintiffs in St. Louis Public School's dispute with the state over funding.
Camille Phillips | St. Louis Public Radio
LeDiva Pierce with her daughters Alfreida, left, and Unique. Pierce is one of two charter school parents seeking to intervene as plaintiffs in St. Louis Public School's dispute with the state over funding.

Updated Aug. 10 with appeal — Two St. Louis charter school parents are renewing their effort to have a say in a lawsuit that could change the way public schools are funded in the city.

LeDiva Pierce and Ken Ross Jr. filed an appeal Wednesday to join a suit against the state of Missouri by St. Louis Public Schools.

For the past 10 years the state has divided sales tax funding earmarked for desegregation efforts between St. Louis Public Schools and charter schools. The city's school district argues it should receive the full amount, including the $42 million sent to charter schools.

The charter school parents believe that if the state is required to redirect that money it could bankrupt their children’s schools.

A federal judge ruled last month that the parents don’t have standing in the case because they weren’t parties to a 1999 desegregation settlement agreement.

Updated July 20 with judge's ruling — A federal judge on Wednesday rejected the efforts of two charter school parents to join a suit over whether charters should receive proceeds from a 1999 desegregation tax.

LeDiva Pierce and Ken Ross Jr. had wanted to join on the side of the charters the lawsuit that was filed by St. Louis Public Schools and the NAACP. The suit sought to recover from charters millions of dollars raised by the tax that they said were wrongly diverted from the city public school system. The parents said if the charters have to repay the money, the schools could go bankrupt and their children could be harmed.

But U.S. District Judge Henry Autrey, who heard arguments on the motion last week, ruled the parents do not have legal standing to enter the case. He said they were not parties to the 1999 court agreement that prompted the sales tax, and their claim of possible harm is not enough for them to join the lawsuit on the side of the charters.

The head of the Missouri Charter Public School Association, Doug Thaman, issued this statement in reaction to Autrey's ruling:

"Although disappointed that charter school parents, who are public school parents in the City of St. Louis, will not be allowed to have their voices heard in a case that could negatively impact the education of their children, we maintain our belief that the sales tax dollars in question should be equitably distributed to ALL public schools in the City of St. Louis and the District's legal action must be withdrawn or denied.  Charter public school students are at risk."

Our original story: A federal judge is considering whether St. Louis charter school parents have legal standing in a lawsuit challenging a decade-old system of distributing education funding.

Judge Henry Autrey heard arguments Wednesday in a motion to intervene filed by charter school parents LeDiva Pierce and Ken Ross Jr.

Pierce said after the hearing that she’s worried about the future of her children’s education if she isn’t allowed to participate.

“I have a daughter, two daughters, and a son. My oldest wants to be a doctor, my youngest wants to be a lawyer. And my son who’s in between them wants to be an architect. I’m just hoping that with the education that they’re getting they’ll have a better chance of getting the things that they want to do and be,” Pierce said.

At issue is a local sales tax passed in 1999 as part of a desegregation settlement agreement. For the past decade St. Louis charter schools have been receiving a portion of those funds, adding up to about $42 million.

St. Louis Public Schools and its co-plaintiffs are suing the state of Missouri to recover that money and all future money generated by the tax.

Pierce believes that the result of the suit could bankrupt the charter schools her children attend, Kipp Inspire Academy and Northside Community Charter School.

“If they take this charter school away from them, it’s going to damage the kids, because in public schools they’re not getting a full education. It’s like they’re pushing the kids off,” Pierce said.

During the hearing Wednesday, the attorney representing St. Louis Public Schools, Ronald Norwood, argued that the suit is about desegregation, not charter schools.

The state has “an obligation to fund charter schools, and we concede that,” Norwood said. “Our position is this court and every party agreed that this special pot of money would be used for special desegregation efforts.”

In response to the judge asking whether charter schools de facto take part in that effort, Norwood said the purpose of the settlement agreement was “to carve out the constitutional responsibility to remove the vestiges of state-mandated segregation” and that “charter schools had no vestiges to remove” because they were a “fresh slate” created after state-mandated segregation ended.

“There are 6,200-some charter school children who are African American in this district who attend charter schools and should be entitled to a share of this sales tax for their education,” Root said after the hearing.

“Charter schools were created as part of the desegregation remedy, as part of the settlement,” Root added. “The legislation that was key to the settlement created the charter schools. And so we are part of the landscape of desegregation in St. Louis. And the kids that get an opportunity to be educated at charter schools are the same kids that would otherwise be educated in the city of St. Louis Public Schools.”

Attorney Veronica Johnson, who represents St. Louis Public School’s co-plaintiff NAACP, also argued that charter school parents have no legal standing in the suit.

“The terms of the agreement require that that money be spent only for desegregation remedial programs and so when the state breached it, the charter schools’ interest arises only out of that breach of contract, that breach of the court order. And that is not a legal interest,” Johnson said.

Johnson also believes that Root’s argument that charter schools would be hurt if the state has to pay back St. Louis Public Schools is speculative.

“Our position as plaintiffs is that the state of Missouri diverted the money, the state of Missouri has to return the money and no one has to claw it back from charter schools. And that going forward the state must stop diverting the money,” Johnson said.

The attorney for the charter school parents, Jeremy Root, argued that the parents have a concrete interest in the suit because the funding has a direct impact on their children’s education.

“Everyone can see that the state of Missouri isn’t sitting on an extra $50 million that it can delegate. So it’s likely they’ll try to recover it from the charter schools, and it’s almost a certainty that the charter schools would not receive the funding going forward if they’re successful in their motion,” Root said.

Judge Autrey has no time limit to make a decision on whether charter school parents have standing in the matter.

Follow Camille Phillips on Twitter: @cmpcamille.

An earlier version of this story said LaDiva Pierce's son wanted to be a park attendant.

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.