Missouri Supreme Court hears KC school transfer arguments

10/03/2013 12:09 AM

10/03/2013 12:09 AM

Whether or not students of Kansas City Public Schools can transfer to a neighboring district at no cost to their families now rests in the hands of the Missouri Supreme Court.

The court heard arguments Wednesday over a state law allowing students in unaccredited school districts to transfer to accredited districts. The failing district must pay for the student’s education and transportation, and the receiving district cannot turn them away.

Taxpayers from five suburban Kansas City school districts filed a lawsuit arguing that requiring them to accept transfers from Kansas City amounts to an unfunded mandate in violation of the Missouri Constitution.

In a split ruling, a Jackson County judge found in favor of the Independence, Lee’s Summit and North Kansas City plaintiffs but rejected the argument for Blue Springs and Raytown. The case was then appealed to the Missouri high court.

Duane Martin, the attorney representing the five suburban districts, argued Wednesday that a survey of the Kansas City district found that if given the opportunity to transfer, nearly 8,000 Kansas City students would do so — roughly half the district.

Each of the surrounding school districts would be forced to admit several hundred to a few thousand additional students, Martin said. And those students would be coming from a low-performance district, he said, meaning they would be more expensive to educate.

Andrew Hirth, deputy general counsel with the Missouri attorney general’s office, pointed out that the court has already ruled on the transfer issue.

In June, the court handed down a unanimous decision rejecting the unfunded mandate argument and upholding the law in a case involving St. Louis-area districts.

“You’ve already decided on this issue,” Hirth said.

Martin countered that the earlier Supreme Court ruling should not govern the outcome of the latest lawsuit. He disagreed with the court’s previous ruling and said it should be overturned. But even if it isn’t, he said the two cases are not identical.

The court’s earlier decision has “torn the fabric of public education,” Martin said. “I hope that with this case, we can start to mend it.”

Local districts are hoping to avoid what is already playing out in St. Louis County. Since the court’s June ruling, almost a quarter of students in the unaccredited Normandy and Riverview Gardens districts applied for transfer.

The cost of paying tuition and transportation has begun to take a toll. Normandy officials are asking Missouri lawmakers for an additional $6.8 million in state funds to avoid going bankrupt before the end of the school year. Riverview Gardens could run out of money next year.

The transfer law has not been enacted in Kansas City because local officials have been waiting on a Supreme Court ruling on the lawsuit. School officials have said that if estimates prove accurate and 8,000 of the district’s roughly 16,000 students were to transfer, it could cost the district $120 million from its $238 million budget.

The Missouri Board of Education will consider whether to grant Kansas City provisional accreditation when it meets Oct. 22. The district, which has been unaccredited since January 2012, thinks it deserves provisional status after it earned 60 percent of the points possible when state report cards were issued in August, more than the 50 percent required to be considered for provisional accreditation.

The district earned many points for improvement in test performance, but 70 percent of its students still scored less than proficient on state tests.

Education Commissioner Chris Nicastro announced last month that she is recommending that the district remain unaccredited until at least another year of data shows more sustained growth.

But the final decision is up to the state board. If it were to grant Kansas City provisional status, the transfer law would no longer apply.

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