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ST. LOUIS • A dispute over which public schools are entitled to desegregation tax dollars began to unfold in federal court on Wednesday as attorneys disagreed over whether charter school parents should have a say in the matter.

U.S. District Judge Henry Autrey listened for two hours as lawyers argued over whether the interests of charter school parent are valid in a motion that potentially could drain their schools of resources.

It’s a question that must be cleared up before Autrey or any judge in the coming months can begin to tackle the underlying arguments over the proper use of a city sales tax voters approved in 1999 to remedy the harmful impact of segregation in St. Louis Public Schools.

In April, the school district and others filed a motion asking a judge to enforce the terms of the Desegregation Settlement Agreement, which specified that revenue from the desegregation sales tax be spent only on district programs such as magnet schools, full-day kindergarten and summer school.

But for 10 years the state has included the tax revenue its calculations to determine how much funding to withhold from the district and send to charter schools. As a result, about $8.5 million from the tax went to charter schools this past school year. About $50 million from the desegregation sales tax has indirectly gone to finance charter school operations since 2006.

LaDiva Pierce, who is trying to intervene in the case, attended the hearing with her two of her daughters, who attend charter schools. The room was packed with other parents, teachers and charter school organizers.

Pierce is concerned that if the district prevails, charter schools could be forced to pay back millions of dollars, potentially closing some.

More than 6,000 African-American children attend the city’s charter schools, her attorney, Jeremy Root, told Autrey. Charter schools educate about one-third of the children who attend public schools in the city.

“Their interests are the same as parents and children who attend district schools,” Root said. “Their interests are in maintaining the quality of education for their children.”

Charter schools had not yet opened in St. Louis when a federal judge signed the Desegregation Settlement Agreement. Therefore, they’re not mentioned in the document.

Ronald Norwood, an attorney representing the school district, said charter schools don’t carry the same vestiges of segregation. They opened as new schools, he said, whereas segregation within the district went on for more than a century. When parents choose charter schools, they opt out of the district programs that the settlement agreement is intended to protect, he added.

The purpose of the agreement is to “remove the stain, the stench of over 100 years of separation in St. Louis Public Schools,” Norwood said. “They voluntarily became a nonparty when they put on the charter school parent hat.”

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Charter school parents have turned to social media and speaking out at district meetings urging officials to “drop the suit.” It could be weeks before Autrey decides whether charter school parents may intervene in the litigation.

It stems from a 44-year-old case that involved concerned parents who sued on behalf of their children seeking desegregation in St. Louis schools.

The parties involved in the current litigation include the district’s Special Administrative Board, the NAACP, the original plaintiffs, the U.S. Department of Justice and others who were involved in crafting the 1999 desegregation settlement agreement that grew from that lawsuit.

After the hearing, Pierce said she hoped Autrey would listen to her side.

“They’re better off in their charter schools,” she said of her daughters, who attend North Side Community School and KIPP Inspire Academy. Even though the overall performance of the school district has risen significantly in the past decade, Pierce said charters were a better fit for her children.

“They’re learning something,” she said. “They’re not going to school just for lunch.”

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