May 21, 2014

Normandy School District sues to stop Missouri student transfer law

The unaccredited St. Louis County district has reopened the fight against the law, which previously withstood an attack from Kansas City area districts.

Missouri’s student transfer law is heading back into the courts.

The Normandy School District in St. Louis County, the most severely damaged district under the law, filed a lawsuit Wednesday to attempt to get the law declared unconstitutional.

A day earlier, the state school board had voted to replace the Normany district with a new system.

The transfer law allows children in unaccredited districts to transfer to nearby accredited districts with tuition costs and transportation paid by the unaccredited district.

Lawmakers have struggled over several legislative sessions to agree on ways to repair the law and passed a revision this month that Normandy’s school board decried as inadequate.

“It was our fervent hope that Missouri lawmakers would rectify the catastrophic effect the transfer statute has had upon the students and residents of the Normandy community,” Normandy school board president William Humphrey said in a written statement.

“However, given the economic urgency and absence of an equitable solution emanating from the state legislature, we had no alternative but to ask for judicial intervention.”

The district reported that it has paid nearly $8 million in tuition to nearby districts as some 1,000 students transferred out of the district this school year.

The Kansas City area has been tangled in the controversies over the law as several area districts previously filed a lawsuit trying unsuccessfully to block the law.

Kansas City Public Schools is unaccredited and will be supporting transfers this fall, but only 23 children applied to leave. The district also expects to regain provisional accreditation this fall, which would put an end to transfers under the law.

In two previous cases — one from the St. Louis area as well as the one from the Kansas City area — the Missouri Supreme Court upheld the law, leaving it to lawmakers to try to repair it.

The legislature’s attempt to fix the law has courted controversy, particularly because the revision includes a limited amount of opportunity for some children to transfer to nonreligious private schools.

Gov. Jay Nixon has voiced strong opposition to any legislation that would allow any public funds to go to private schools, but he has not yet said whether he will veto the bill.

Normandy, in a press release, recounted the financial hardship it has incurred and said it thinks the law is unconstitutional because it puts new financial burdens on the district without providing funding to support them.

“Our district has always considered a legal approach,” Superintendent Ty McNichols said. “We have intentionally waited to see what legislators were going to do.”

Not only does Normandy oppose the private school option provided in the bill, the district asserts that the adjustments the bill made in tuition costs do not give the district financial relief.

The lawsuit is being filed by the district, some parents and taxpaying residents against the state, the state school board and 20 surrounding districts.

Normandy became unaccredited in 2013. On Tuesday, the state school board voted to lapse the district and reopen it under a new name — the Normandy Schools Collaborative — with a state-appointed board.

A day later, the district filed its lawsuit.

The district was not going “to sit idly by,” Humphrey said, “…while watching district resources dissipate to the detriment of 3,000-plus remaining students while crippling efforts to regain accreditation — all due to a misguided statute.”

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

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