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Senate cuts funding for ‘controversial’ St. Louis school program

Senate cuts funding for ‘controversial’ St. Louis school program

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JEFFERSON CITY — Senate budget writers cut $1.5 million from a new education program in St. Louis after concerns were raised about the money going to an organization that backs charter schools.

The House previously endorsed a plan to spend $2 million on a proposal to improve public schools by investing in strategic planning and “district redesign.”

But Republican and Democratic members of the Senate Appropriations Committee balked at the amount, saying it appeared targeted for a nonprofit called the Opportunity Trust, which has made news in St. Louis because of its connection to a controversial Normandy charter school and its goal to expand charter school options in the city.

“This is something we need to put a pause on,” said Sen. Barbara Washington, D-Kansas City.

“I don’t know what they do. Does this organization have a proven track record?” said Sen. Lauren Arthur, D-Kansas City. “I don’t know what we’re going to get back.”

Rep. Lincoln Hough, R-Springfield, also said the proposed spending should be decreased because the program is “unproven.”

In response, the chairman of the budget-writing panel, Sen. Dan Hegeman, R-Cosby, lowered the spending level to $500,000, setting up further negotiations with the House.

The changes come after St. Louis school officials called on lawmakers to strip the spending from the budget, which is set to be approved by both chambers by May 7.

In a March 23 letter, Dorothy Rohde-Collins, president of the St. Louis School Board, wrote, “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.”

In response, 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 in a March 29 letter. “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.

Arthur said she wanted more information about what the program might deliver.

“I know this is sort of a controversial item,” Arthur said.

Sen. Bill Eigel, R-Weldon Spring, said he believes the money would not have to go only to Opportunity Trust.

“I’m surprised to hear resistance,” Eigel said. “This seems like a miniscule amount.”

But, said Washington, “This is a private entity that we are giving funds to.”

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