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Missouri superintendents want to stop student transfer law

Updated: 2013-11-02T01:53:04Z

By JOE ROBERTSON

The Kansas City Star

On the big issue of unaccredited schools — and whether their students should be able to transfer — many Missouri superintendents and the state’s education commissioner’s office stand increasingly at odds.

The state office believes that the law, which allows students to transfer out of unaccredited school districts, can be fixed.

The superintendents think it is irreparably flawed.

Some 20 district leaders met privately in Jefferson City this week, knowing they need to propose a healthier alternative for children and communities with poor-performing schools that doesn’t require students to be bused away, leaving even more deprived children behind.

It’s happening now in the St. Louis area and sits ominously on the horizon for Kansas City.

The big-picture plan is still being cooked, say several people involved in the superintendents’ work, but there is consensus at their core: School reform has to protect the students in communities that transferring peers leave behind.

“All kids matter,” Center School District superintendent Bob Bartman said. “All schools matter. All communities matter.”

The transfer law requires unaccredited districts to pay the costs of tuition and transportation for students who leave. It may give some children a chance for stronger classrooms. But critics of the law say it leaves more students in worse conditions in communities suffering swifter deterioration of their neighborhood schools.

Direct fallout is already being felt in the St. Louis area, where the state believes the unaccredited Normandy School District needs an infusion of $6.8 million to remain solvent.

Some 20 percent of its students have transferred to other districts. And the district of about 3,000 remaining students announced plans at a school board meeting last month to cut 100 staff members and close an elementary school in the middle of the academic year.

At that same meeting, the school board voted that it would stop paying the tuition bills from the other districts.

That vote was mostly symbolic, because the state has set policy that it will extract unpaid tuition bills from the state funds due to any unaccredited district that is more than 60 days behind in paying.

But the message of fear and frustration resonated in the Kansas City area, where the unaccredited Kansas City Public Schools and its neighboring districts may have to begin preparations this spring for student transfers in 2014-2015.

Broad agreement exists that the law is broken. Addressing the law will again be a high priority when lawmakers reconvene in January.

At least two areas need to be addressed, said Ron Lankford, Missouri’s deputy education commissioner for financial and administrative services.

The amount of tuition unaccredited districts pay per student must be set at a lower, steady rate. In return, receiving districts need to be able to set and sustain limits on class sizes.

Normandy is paying tuition rates to more than a dozen school districts ranging from $9,500 to $20,000. The total tuition bill will reach between $13 million and $15 million this school year, which is 30 percent of the district’s budget.

For an unaccredited district that is still maintaining roughly the same buildings, staff and services for its remaining students, Lankford said: “There is no way a district can make corresponding cuts.”

The legislature, in amending the law, could borrow ideas from the voluntary desegregation transfer program that has operated in the St. Louis area for many years. Tuition fees are set at $7,200 per student, and receiving districts have discretion in determining where they have available seats.

The education department under Commissioner Chris Nicastro has not recommended eliminating the transfer law.

“The question is, ‘How do we assure each student’s right to a quality education?’” Lankford said. “If choice continues to be a part of the solution, how do we make it possible without forcing a district into bankruptcy?”

For every student who might benefit from a transfer, there are more students left behind whose conditions will only worsen, said Gayden Carruth, executive director of the Cooperating School Districts of Greater Kansas City.

The superintendents are working on a farther-reaching proposal that will likely not include transfers.

“Reducing tuition costs to continue a transfer process that is not good for every student and every community doesn’t solve the problem,” Carruth said.

Missouri Sen. David Pearce, the chairman of the Senate Education Committee, who has sponsored past attempts to amend the transfer law, does not expect the legislature to eliminate the law.

Other ideas that seek drastic reform without having to relocate children will again be in play, such as enabling districts or the state to contract out school management to other districts, he said. It will be difficult again, and the whole state will be watching.

“We have to look at attractive alternatives … that are fair to both sending and receiving districts,” Pearce said. “So many people are affected by this. It’s a statewide issue.”

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

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