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St. Louis-area TIF districts cost public schools' minority students over $260 million, report finds

An illustration of Black students working.
Paige Vickers
Tax increment financing districts — commonly known as TIF districts — have cost minority students in public schools across St. Louis and St. Louis County more than $260 million over the last six years, according to a new report.

Tax breaks for property developers across St. Louis and St. Louis County have cost Black, poor and disabled students in public schools more than $260 million over the last six years, a new study finds.

The report, released by Good Jobs First, a nonprofit research center, and the St. Louis teachers union, American Federation of Teachers Local 420, reviewed annual revenue losses between 2017 through 2022 from tax abatements in St. Louis Public Schools and the 23 school districts in St. Louis County.

The county and city school districts are included in what are known as tax increment financing districts. These are small geographic areas that a city wants to be redeveloped, typically due to blighted properties, to improve and attract investment. For up to 23 years after a TIF district is created, property values and property taxes increase due to redevelopment.

And when this happens, the increase in taxes does not go to public services like the school districts or other city programs. Instead, the funds are diverted to pay for redevelopment activities, including infrastructure.

Good Jobs First compared the two largest school districts in the region: St. Louis Public Schools and the Rockwood R-VI School District. It found that all of the roughly 17,000 students who make up the SLPS district qualify for meal assistance, and 88% of them are Black or brown. Yet those students lose 91 times more tax revenue per student than the 20,000 students in the Rockwood R-VI School District.

There, researchers found that 75% of the pupils are white and just 9% qualify for meal assistance.

St. Louis Alderwoman Alisha Sonnier of the 7th Ward, who has been highlighting this issue for years, said there has been little to no consideration for what tax abatements mean for SLPS or what the school board thinks about them.

“I am saddened by the realities uplifted in the report,” Sonnier said Wednesday. “This report further underscores the need for developers to be good community partners and to pay their fair share of taxes. City leadership must hold developers accountable before giving them tax incentives.”

Sonnier is currently pushing for the Tax Accountability in Development Act, which would require applicants for development tax incentives to be current in all city property taxes. It would also require applicants to be current in water bills and trash service bills at the time of application.

“We should all be held to the same standard of paying our taxes, and our city’s children and future rely on this,” she added.

According to the study, public schools in the city lose more than any of the 23 suburban districts in St. Louis County, at $1,634 per student per year, the study found. On the opposite end, many suburban districts lose less than $80 per student each year or report no losses at all.

The sharp disparities by race, income and disability are glaring, said Greg LeRoy, executive director of Good Jobs First. He said that the nonprofit is not against TIFs and that they have their place — it’s just not OK for school districts to miss out on disproportionate amounts of money that could be used to improve conditions for students.

The study concludes that Black and brown low-income students are losing 91 times more than their whiter, more affluent counterparts in the suburbs.

“We also see teacher salary disparities, poor air quality and no air conditioning during hot months,” LeRoy said.

The report’s author, Anya Gizis of Good Jobs First, experienced these disparities firsthand. She graduated from the Philadelphia Public School District in 2019 at a time when the district was being highlighted for losing more money to tax abatements than other school district in the nation.

Her high school suffered as a result of not having the funds to address infrastructure woes.

“Our gym flooded, and ceilings were falling down,” Gizis said. “The year I graduated, our school district had already lost more than $100 million. Our city council reacted to those findings by moving to cut those losses. I hope St. Louis will, too.”

Some of the millions of lost revenue from tax abatements in the St. Louis region could have been used to assist the more than 4,000 homeless public school students in the area, said former SLPS biology teacher Juanita Chambers, who retired in 2013. She recalled cleaning out the lockers at the end of the school year and finding coats, shirts and shoes that had never been used. The items were set aside for students experiencing homelessness to take without judgment, she said.

“There are a lot of homeless kids now, a lot more than it was back then,” Chambers said. “And [the schools] need the money and the resources to go into the homes to say, ‘Ma’am, how can we help you?’"

More harm

The second hardest-hit group of students in the St. Louis region were those with disabilities in the Special School District of St. Louis County. This district serves children with special needs residing in suburban districts and loses $1,148 per student each year, the study found.

That’s a cumulative loss of $14.4 million over six years.

There’s hope for change if people in the St. Louis region are willing to address the issue, Gizis said.

“There are states where no governments can touch the money, except for school boards, and that’s Alabama, Florida and Maryland,” Gizis said. “There are fights going on in Kansas City, Cincinnati, New York and Philadelphia, where I’m from, where people are pushing to get money back into the schools and out of the hands of developers.”

Report recommendations:

  • Give either veto power or voting power on the St. Louis TIF Commission to St. Louis Public Schools, proportional to the district's share of property tax receipts. 
  • Shield school funding from tax abatements to remedy the effects of TIF districts.
  • Look at using TIF to create housing for the families of homeless SLPS students.
Lacretia Wimbley is a general assignment reporter for St. Louis Public Radio.