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Law on student transfers survives challenge in Missouri Supreme Court

Updated: 2013-06-12T04:48:41Z

By JOE ROBERTSON

The Kansas City Star

The Missouri Supreme Court has upheld a state law that could allow students in the unaccredited Kansas City Public Schools to transfer into other school districts.

The court’s ruling, issued Tuesday afternoon, applies to a case involving St. Louis Public Schools that resembles — but is separate from — a pending Kansas City area case.

The court rejected arguments by the St. Louis area districts that the law was an unconstitutional, unfunded mandate in violation of the state’s Hancock Amendment.

The district’s had argued that the potential transfer of thousands of students out of St. Louis Public Schools — which has since regained accreditation — would force new costs on the districts that would receive those students.

The Supreme Court disagreed and sent the case back to the circuit court, saying the law did not violate the Hancock Amendment in part because it would force a reallocation of state funds among districts, but would not increase the overall number of students being served.

Because St. Louis is now provisionally accredited, the potential impact of Tuesday’s ruling is being felt more strongly in Kansas City, where the district is still working to regain provisional accreditation.

A separate case involving Kansas City area schools is under appeal.

In that case, heard last August, Circuit Judge W. Brent Powell carved out a mixed decision, determining that individual school districts could claim a Hancock Amendment violation if they demonstrated that they would suffer a net increase in costs.

Powell ruled in favor of the Independence, Lee’s Summit and North Kansas City school districts, saying they had shown a Hancock Amendment violation.

But two other districts — Raytown and Blue Springs — had not, he said.

What the ruling in the St. Louis case bodes for the Kansas City case remains to be seen.

Duane Martin, attorney for the suburban districts in the Kansas City case, said they will continue to challenge the student transfer law.

“There are crucial differences between the cases and the Supreme Court’s recent opinion does not necessarily foreshadow how the Court will rule” on the Kansas City case, he said in a written statement.

The Missouri attorney general’s office was due to file a brief Tuesday in the Kansas City case, spokeswoman Nanci Gonder said, but the office is asking for time to review the St. Louis decision and file a new brief after the case is final.

“We are carefully reviewing the ruling to see what impact, if any, it has,” she said.

The Kansas City district is hoping to follow St. Louis Public Schools’ path and escape potential fallout by regaining accreditation.

Kansas City has presented early performance data that it think shows the district will likely score at a provisionally accredited level when the state’s new report cards are issued in August.

The district would still have to make its case for provisional accreditation before the state school board, which determines a district’s classification.

One district in the St. Louis area, Riverview Gardens, with an enrollment of some 6,000 students, is still unaccredited.

Kansas City Public Schools is the only unaccredited district in the Kansas City area.

Several school districts surrounding the district have expressed concern that the law would prompt an unpredictable number of student transfers that could incur facility and staffing costs beyond the tuition Kansas City Public Schools would pay per student.

The Kansas City district, area administrators said, would potentially be bankrupted if it is left with underenrolled buildings while trying to manage the tuition and transportation costs.

The difficulty in managing the right size of facilities and staffing would increase costs on both sides of the transfer line, school districts said.

By creating those costs, without new funding, the law violates the Hancock Amendment, the districts have argued.

But the Supreme Court held that the amendment is designed to prevent shifting state costs to a local entity. It does not stop the state from reallocating the burden among political subdivisions.

Because the number of children eligible for public education is not increased and districts are not being asked to change their basic responsibility, there is no violation, the ruling said.

Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster, whose office had defended the law, was pleased to see it upheld.

“This clearly is a difficult situation,” he said in a written statement, “but our guiding principle has always been putting kids first. The state’s ultimate goal must be full funding of the foundation formula and one hundred percent district accreditation in our state.”

To reach Joe Robertson, call 816-234-4789 or send email to jrobertson@kcstar.com.

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