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Parents file appeal in charter school funding case

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

Two parents of children in charter schools in St. Louis are taking their fight to be involved in a school-funding lawsuit to a federal appeals court.

Earlier this year, a U.S. District Court judge rejected attempts by Ken Ross Jr. and LeDiva Pierce to intervene in a motion brought by the St. Louis Public Schools and the NAACP. The court actions seeks to stop money from a 1999 sales tax from going to charter schools and want the charters to pay back $50 million in tax proceeds they have received over the past 10 years.

Charters have said that if they have to repay the money, they may have to close their doors. That threat, the parents said in a brief filed with the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals last week, shows how their families could be affected by the outcome of the court action and why they should be allowed to take part in the suit.

“The interests of over 6,000 African-American children who attend public school at charter public schools in the City of St. Louis,” the brief says, “and who benefit from the receipt of millions of dollars annually in educational funding, should be represented.”

It adds:

“The loss of more than $50 million in educational funding already provided to the public charter schools and additional funding going forward will have a direct and serious impact on the public school children in the City of St. Louis who have chosen to attend charter public schools. The loss of the money may shutter these charter public schools and dissolve the educational communities to which these students and families belong.

“Indeed, this could eliminate the very educational opportunity and quality the 1999 Settlement Agreement, and its enabling legislation intended to create. In the context of public education, what greater injury could possibly be shown?”

Limited money for schools

The city schools and the NAACP filed their motion in April, just six days after the school system won passage of a 75-cent property tax increase – timing that the school system’s Special Administrative Board has termed “unfortunate.”

It also came at a time that the school system and area charters have begun to work closely together rather than fighting over scarce public dollars that go to education.

That lack of funding is at the heart of the parents’ argument to the appellate court to overturn a ruling in July by U.S. District Judge Henry Autrey that they do not have legal standing to intervene in the case. Autrey said the parents were not parties to the 1999 court agreement that prompted the sales tax, and their claim of possible harm does not justify their joining the suit.

In their brief, Ross and Pierce argued against both of those claims. They noted an opinion by Mike Wolff, a former chief justice of the Missouri Supreme Court who helped craft the court agreement, that the sales tax was supposed to be available to help all students in the city, whether they attend a district school or a charter school.

“As African-American residents of the City of St. Louis, parents of African-American children attending public school in the City of St. Louis, and products of the racially segregated public school system in the City of St. Louis,” the brief filed on behalf of Ross and Pierce says, “they were members of the class at the time of the 1999 settlement and they were among its explicitly intended beneficiaries.”

The filing adds that their families stand to be injured if charter schools have to close, and they actually were parties to and intended beneficiaries of the 1999 settlement agreement.

Pierce has three children attending charters in the city; Ross has two. Pierce graduated from public schools operated by the city school system, the brief says, and after the 1999 settlement, Ross enrolled his son in schools operated by the district.

That history, and their children’s current educational situation, entitles them to intervene, the brief says

“Unless Appellants are allowed to intervene,” it says, “the parents and children of African-American students enrolled in charter public schools will be entirely unrepresented in these proceedings.

'Unless Appellants are allowed to intervene, the parents and children of African-American students enrolled in charter public schools will be entirely unrepresented in these proceedings.' -- Brief filed on behalf of charter school parents

“Charter public school parents and children should not be sidelined during the pendency of this action in the hopes that the outcome will not affect them. Appellants’ children are the same children intended to benefit from the 1999 Settlement Agreement.”

And, the parents add, the problems and issues that the sales tax was designed to address affects all children in the city, no matter where they go to school.

“The electorate of St. Louis approved this additional tax so that the children who needed remedies from the lingering effects of de jure racial segregation would have adequate funding to meet their educational needs.

“Those needs are the same for those children who choose to attend charter public schools as those children who are educated in noncharter public schools in the district. Charter public schools have been among the most meaningful educational options available to African-American parents and students.”

Further, the brief argues that the issue of who gets proceeds from the sales tax has a wider impact than just the schools.

“These are not mere economic interests,” it says. “The educational services offered at charter public schools are vital to a community whose noncharter public schools were failing so terribly that they were unaccredited and placed under the control of a Special Administrative Board in 2007.”

Follow Dale on Twitter: @dalesinger

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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