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Lawsuit likely if state denies KC school district’s bid for accreditation

Updated: 2013-10-21T12:39:44Z

By JOE ROBERTSON

The Kansas City Star

It’s happened before:

The Kansas City school district is stripped of accreditation. A district official decries it as a “death knell.” The superintendent despairs over the timing for a school system trying to reset itself.

The state school board and education commissioner hold their ground.

And then comes a lawsuit.

What happened in 1999 may be coming back around in 2013.

Because if the state school board this week honors Education Commissioner Chris Nicastro’s recommendation and denies Kansas City’s bid for provisional accreditation, many people caught up in the events are anticipating the district may well take its fight to court.

“It’s such a big deal, I assume they’ll take all avenues available,” attorney Chuck Hatfield said.

Hatfield was an attorney for the Gordon Parks Elementary charter school when it successfully sued the state this summer after the state Board of Education voted not to renew its charter.

Hatfield also was an assistant attorney general for Missouri in 1999. He represented the state when Kansas City went to federal court to try to undo the state’s decision when it pulled the district’s accreditation the first time.

Standards underlying state accreditation decisions are always changing and deal in evolving and uncertain data, he said.

“It’s a ripe area for litigation,” Hatfield said.

It worked for Gordon Parks, which has reopened.

Kansas City Public Schools officials are not commenting on the possibility of a lawsuit.

But they and many neighboring school district leaders have sounded alarms over the high stakes this time if Kansas City remains unaccredited.

A student transfer law, already being applied with unaccredited districts in the St. Louis area, is zeroing in on Kansas City next spring. It has the potential of sending transfers into neighboring districts in 2014-2015 at a crippling cost to the Kansas City district, which would have to pay tuition and provide transportation.

Superintendents of area districts, their school boards and several lawmakers have been urging Nicastro and the state board to reward Kansas City for its recent progress and give it provisional accreditation.

State board members have heard Kansas City plead its case, and they also have received the commissioner’s recommendation to wait at least another year before considering a change in status.

The commissioner’s recommendation will likely carry the day when the board votes Tuesday, said Charlie Shields, a state school board member and former state legislator from St. Joseph.

“It’s hard to believe the board would do anything different,” he said.

Shields agrees with Nicastro’s statements that lawmakers need to fix or remove the law rather than pressure the education department to compromise its school accountability system.

Kansas City made important gains to score within the provisional range in its state report card this year, Shields said, “but one year does not make a trend.”

Even with some growth, too many Kansas City students — seven out of 10 — did not score proficient or advanced in math and reading, said state school board president Peter Herschend.

He expects he will be voting to deny Kansas City’s bid.

In 1999, Benjamin Demps had recently stepped in as superintendent. The district was in a prolonged performance decline, and then-Education Commissioner Bob Bartman described stripping Kansas City’s accreditation as a necessary wake-up call.

John Murphy, head of the district’s desegregation monitoring committee, called it “a death knell.” That time the district went to federal court, arguing unsuccessfully that the state’s move would cripple the district’s ability to comply with the federal desegregation order.

The transfer law — which was essentially squelched by the rounds of desegregation litigation — was not a factor then.

It is now. If the board keeps Kansas City unaccredited, a subsequent lawsuit by the district likely would further delay any movement of students under the transfer law, area officials say.

Kansas City area schools have been holding off on transfers while waiting on a ruling on the law from the Missouri Supreme Court, expected later this fall. The high court already upheld the law earlier this year in a St. Louis area case, which prompted districts to begin transfers there.

The St. Louis ruling doesn’t bode well for those wanting a different outcome in Kansas City, but the court is seeing some ramifications of the law play out that were only speculated at before.

Some 2,600 students sought transfers this school year from the Normandy and Riverview Gardens school districts in the St. Louis area — roughly 1 out of every 4 students in the two unaccredited districts. The Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education has projected a combined loss of $35 million for the districts and said the state will need to budget $6.8 million for Normandy to keep the financially struggling district from going bankrupt.

Some 10,000 children in the Kansas City district boundary have already seized an alternative public school option through charter schools that is not available in Normandy or Riverview Gardens, but if one-fourth of Kansas City’s enrollment were to transfer, that would mean the loss of around 4,000 students.

But the law allows any children living in the unaccredited district to transfer, whether attending a district school or not. If one-fourth of the 32,000 school-age children living in the district sought transfers, the district would have to pay the costs for 8,000 children, said Gayden Carruth, executive director of the Cooperating School Districts of Greater Kansas City.

Kansas City’s costs, Carruth said, could approach $120 million under that scenario.

The state board needs the authority to direct the education department to determine the true costs of transfers, Herschend said, so no district is either overly financially penalized or profiting.

But the legislature will have to act to give that authority.

Kansas City and its neighboring districts need to be protected, Shields said. The education department is trying to provide guidance to the districts, and it is working with lawmakers to design fixes to the transfer law — if they can negotiate around other legislators who see an opportunity to leverage in more controversial reforms. Such additions have derailed past attempts to fix the law.

“It’s very challenging,” Shields said. “Our interest is that we not see what is happening to Normandy happen to Kansas City.”

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

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