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Missouri Supreme Court upholds state takeover of St. Louis schools

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 17, 2008 - The Missouri Supreme Court resoundingly rejected on Tuesday the claim by the St. Louis Board of Education that the state takeover of the school district had violated St. Louis voters' rights and the rights of elected board members to serve.

In a unanimous decision, Judge Patricia Breckenridge wrote that the district's loss of accreditation in 2007 and the resulting transfer of authority to a state-appointed board did not violate the fundamental right to vote of the people of St. Louis.

The elected School Board had claimed that the transfer of authority from the elected to the appointed board amounted to an after-the-fact nullification of the voters' election decision. But Breckenridge noted that the law providing for the transfer of authority to an appointed board passed in 1998 as part of the settlement of the school desegregation case. Because that law, SB 781, was enacted before the school board election, it was not an after-the-fact nullification of the election, Breckenridge reasoned.

Several of the elected School Board members claimed that their loss of power amounted to the deprivation of a constitutionally protected property right without due process of law. Breckenridge noted, however, that the same statute that set out the term of service of the elected board members also provided for the creation of the appointed board if the district lost accreditation. For this reason, she wrote, the elected board members could not rely on that law for their argument.

One of the elected board's strongest claims was that the law providing for a transfer of power to the appointed board was a so-called "special" law and therefore a violation of the Missouri Constitution's ban on special laws that prescribe duties of local officials. Breckenridge agreed that the law was "facially special" because it was written to apply only to St. Louis. But she concluded that the law did not violate the constitution because the state had a "substantial justification" for the law -- settlement of the school desegregation case in a way that guaranteed children of all races the chance for quality, integrated education.

The elected School Board also claimed that the state Board of Education had acted arbitrarily in deciding to take away the district's accreditation. Breckenridge disagreed. She pointed out that the district had received only "provisional accreditation" during its two previous evaluations and that there was ample evidence that poor performance of students justified the state board's action.

Finally, the court rejected the elected board's claim that the appointed board only took on powers that the St. Louis School Board had in 1998 when SB 781 passed. Breckenridge found that the appointed board has all of the powers that the elected board had when it was replaced in 2007. The only powers retained by the elected board are those of auditing and public reporting, powers it shares with the appointed board.

William H. Freivogel heads the journalism school at Southern Illinois University Carbondale.