JEFFERSON CITY — As the Missouri Senate starts work on its version of the state budget this week, St. Louis Public Schools leaders are trying to zero-out $2 million in the previously approved House plan that could flow to a nonprofit funder of charter schools.
The $2 million, contained in the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education budget, is earmarked for an organization principally in St. Louis and “that provides matching private funds to improve public school systems by investing in” things such as strategic planning and “district redesign,” the bill says.
Opponents of the funding say it appears the money is intended for the Opportunity Trust, an organization with 10 registered lobbyists that has made news in St. Louis due to its connection to a controversial Normandy charter school and its goal to expand charter school options in the city.
“We don’t have a full understanding of their track record of success,” said Dorothy Rohde-Collins, president of the St. Louis School Board. “More information needs to be gathered before we decide to allocate public funds to a private organization.”
In a March 23 letter to lawmakers, Rohde-Collins said: “I believe the taxpayers of the state of Missouri do not need to subsidize a multi-million dollar organization whose goal is to dismantle traditional public schools and their elected school boards.”
Rohde-Collins said she and Superintendent Dr. Kelvin Adams were in Jefferson City on April 6 to speak to members of legislative budget and education committees about the overall state budget as well as the Opportunity Trust.
St. Louis Public Schools has two active lobbyists, according to the Missouri Ethics Commission.
Representatives with the Opportunity Trust did not respond to a request for comment. But in a March 29 letter to House Budget Chairman Cody Smith, R-Carthage, Keith Williamson, chair of the Opportunity Trust’s board of directors, took issue with Rohde-Collins’ letter.
“The Opportunity Trust has no intention of ‘dismantling public schools,’” he said. “Nor is there any basis to contend that we have ‘no commitment to the taxpayers of St. Louis to be responsible with their dollars.’”
“To the contrary, we remain committed to helping St. Louis Public Schools, and other districts and schools, transform to ensure its graduates are prepared to thrive in the 21st century,” the letter said.
The Opportunity Trust’s latest available tax filings show the nonprofit generated $6.3 million in total revenue in 2019. The group is funded in part by national grant-maker City Fund, whose strategy includes increasing the number of public schools that are run by private boards or nonprofits instead of elected school boards.
The organization paid out $2.1 million in grants, $731,000 in total compensation and $1.3 million classified as other expenses, according to the filing.
The Opportunity Trust was left with $2.9 million in net assets at the end of the year, the group reported.
During House debate over the $2 million on March 30, lawmakers voted down an amendment by Rep. Peter Merideth to strip the money from the budget.
Merideth proposed using the money to fund after-school programs across the state, and not just for a St. Louis-specific program.
The Senate Appropriations Committee starts its work on the budget on Monday.
The push to allocate $2 million to a private organization such as the Opportunity Trust coincides with similar efforts this year to expand charter schools and incentives for school choice in the state.
The House in February sent a plan to the Senate authorizing “Empowerment Scholarship Accounts.” Nonprofits would provide vouchers for students to use at the school of their choice, and donors to those nonprofits would be eligible for tax credits.
The proposal could mean $50 million less in tax collections each year once people claim the credit, leading critics to charge the move is a roundabout way of taking money from public schools and funneling it to private ones.
But proponents argued not all students thrive in traditional public school settings, and that instituting school choice proposals was a necessary piece of reforming the state’s education system.
The House last week approved another proposal that would divert millions of dollars from St. Louis schools to charter schools, once fully implemented.
School choice proposals have been a harder sell in the Senate, where a group of Republicans could tank any proposal that comes up for a vote. Sen. Bill Eigel, R-Weldon Spring, has backed numerous school choice proposals in the Senate, and called for action in a recent interview.
“Every week I come in here thinking we’re going to go back to the education reform bill,” Eigel lamented in a recent interview. “And we’re always surprised when we don’t.”