ST. LOUIS (AP) - The St. Louis school district has been fighting debt for years. But thanks to $96.1 million from a landmark desegregation settlement finalized last week, that debt is gone.
U.S. District Judge Richard Webber signed off on Nov. 16 on an agreement that allows the district to spend the money to expand early childhood education, add more technology to classrooms and mentor teachers. And, the district can pay off nearly $56 million in debt.
The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported Tuesday that removal of the debt will allow the district to regain a point on a scale the state of Missouri uses to rate school districts, putting it in a better position to regain accreditation lost four years ago, when the state took control of Missouri's largest public school district, citing poor academics, unstable governance and shaky finances.
"The district was deep in the hole," said superintendent Kelvin Adams, who began leading St. Louis Public Schools in 2008.
On Monday, Adams said that hole has been filled, thanks to an intricate agreement that frees up desegregation funds.
"The district will be solvent," Adams said.
The $96.1 million comes from an account established in 1999, when the federal government ordered Missouri to pay the district $180 million over 10 years as a settlement of a historic desegregation lawsuit, Liddell vs. Board of Education.
The money, held in escrow, was to ensure the district had facilities equivalent to those in other school districts and could be spent only on buying land and constructing schools.
"School is more than bricks and mortar," William Douthit, attorney for the Liddell plaintiffs, said.
For years, the district has borrowed against the fund for operations. The new agreement absolves the district of what it owes to the fund, plus pays off $19.4 million of additional district debt. It also allows $40.2 million to be spent on eight areas.
About half the money will allow expansion of early childhood education to 25 additional classrooms, while offering before- and after-care for preschoolers at 30 sites. Additional funds are for things such as busing to magnet schools, training and mentoring for principals and teachers, and technology upgrades.
"We count this as a win and not part of an ongoing battle," said Michael Liddell, whose mother, the late Minnie Liddell, filed the landmark lawsuit in 1972, joining the parents of five black students in arguing their schools were inferior to those in white neighborhoods.
That case went to trial in 1977, and a judge ruled against the parents. A federal appeals court panel later reversed that judge's order, leading to a massive desegregation plan, and the case was settled by another federal judge in 1999.
The agreement signed by Webber last week was actually reached in September. It has the support of the American Federation of Teachers Local 420, along with Missouri Education Commissioner Chris L. Nicastro.
"Rather than continuing to hold state funds for building more unneeded school buildings, this agreement will allow St. Louis Public Schools to redirect and invest this resource into targeted educational services needed to boost student achievement and regain accreditation," she said in a statement.
In January, Adams plans to update the Missouri Board of Education on the city's school system. Test scores improved for the fourth year in a row in 2011, with 33.1 percent of students passing English and 30.9 percent passing math. He said there is much more work to do.