• Elisa Crouch

    ST. LOUIS • The city school system will be short about $4.9 million in state funds that officials had expected to receive this summer. The reason: The Confluence Academy charter school network successfully filed litigation that found the district had underpaid its schools over four years.

    St. Louis Superintendent Kelvin Adams told the Special Administrative Board on Wednesday that this marks the second time in three years that charter schools have recouped money from the district through litigation that hasn’t received much attention.

    Two other schools — St. Louis Charter (now Premier Charter School) and Lift For Life — sued the state and claimed St. Louis Public Schools withheld from them millions of dollars in property and sales taxes, also spanning four years. The charter schools prevailed, and received $6.3 million from the district in 2014-15 school year, leaving it with a budget deficit.

    And then for the first time, Adams went on to speak publicly about the district’s own litigation to recoup more than $42 million from charter schools. The motion, filed in April, has reopened wounds between charter school supporters and the district.

    “I want to make it clear the intent of this board has always been to be a good partner,” Adams said, from a lectern in a sparsely filled room at the Special Administrative Board meeting. “The intent of this board, in terms of what they’re doing, is simply to make a case – to say that the dollars that are supposed to be targeted to the St. Louis school district remain in the St. Louis school district.”

    But if successful, the district’s motion could close some charter schools that would be faced with a bill they couldn’t afford to repay.

    It revolves around the 1999 Desegregation Settlement Agreement that dictates how a voter-approved city sales tax should be spent. When voters approved the tax, it was designated for district programs such as preschool and magnet schools to offset the harmful impacts of segregation. Now the district argues that Missouri has violated the agreement since 2006 by indirectly sending more than $42 million of desegregation money to charter schools — money they say should be returned.

    “We have never sought to, in any way shape or form, impact any entity in a negative way as it relates to the resources to support kids, especially who are struggling,” Adams said.

    Adams pointed out that St. Louis Public Schools never sent a bill to the Normandy or Riverview Gardens school districts for the approximately 80 students who transferred into city schools under the school transfer law. It is the only district in the region that didn’t charge the two districts, which struggled to improve while paying millions of dollars in transfer tuition to other area school systems.

    “It didn’t make any sense to ask a district to continue to educate kids and try to improve while taking money from them,” Adams said. “The notion that the (St. Louis) district has taken the attitude of hurting students in the region is not consistent with how this board has performed in the past.”

    Since the district’s motion was filed, charter school supporters have taken to social media asking the district to #DropTheSuit. Other parties behind the litigation, including the St. Louis NAACP, have given no indication they intend to.

    Prior to 2006, charter schools received their operating funds directly from St. Louis Public Schools. Charter schools repeatedly argued that the district underpaid them.

    After that year, the state began sending charter schools their revenue by withholding funds from St. Louis Public Schools. Part of that money includes the desegregation sales tax, which is at the center of the district’s legal action.

    Doug Thaman, executive director of the Missouri Charter Public School Association, said the district’s action in pursuing the litigation implies harmful intent.

    “The facts are, even if the intent was the very best in the world, the result could be financially devastating to the charter schools and force some of them to close,” Thaman said. “The proper thing to do would be to withdraw the lawsuit if you really don’t want to hurt schools. It’s hard to understand how they could say that and actually believe it.”

    If successful, charter schools could be forced to repay $42 million over one year. In the 2015-16 school year, about $8 million in proceeds from the desegregation sales tax went to charters. Thirty-three operate in St. Louis. They educate about 10,500 children, about a third of students who attend public schools in the city.

    Adams said it isn’t for him to dictate how charter school supporters should interpret the district’s litigation, whether it’s intended to close charter schools or merely to force the state to pay the district money that it’s owed. There’s also the question of whether the district would accept the $42 million if a judge ruled in its favor.

    “I can’t tell them how to interpret it,” Adams said. “I’m just stating the facts. I’m simply saying, ‘Here is what the district has done.’ It’s always been about the best interest of students. Always.”