ACLU threatens lawsuit to hasten student transfers

School districts wrestling over how to control a potential wave of students transferring out of Kansas City schools feared some parents might sue.

Friday, the first warning shot was fired — by the ACLU.

“The law says students and parents have the right to transfer without qualifications,” said Doug Bonney, the chief legal counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas and Western Missouri. “If the districts (that surround the unaccredited Kansas City district) don’t start letting students transfer now, we’ll begin looking for suitable plaintiffs and file suit.”

At issue is a Missouri statute that says students who live in an unaccredited school district can transfer to any accredited district in the same or adjacent county at the expense of the unaccredited district.

The law has been a problem for school systems in the St .Louis area and now in Kansas City as they try to manage an unpredictable number of transfers.

Kansas City Public Schools became unaccredited Jan. 1, but no transfers have occurred while the law waits a hearing in a St. Louis area case. Transfers out of Kansas City are further blocked by the conflicting policies established by Kansas City and neighboring districts.

The receiving districts say tuition must be paid in full upfront. Kansas City has said it will pay part of the tuition and only monthly until it gets more guidance from the state. Kansas City also says it will pay only for students who have been enrolled in the district for at least two semesters.

Bonney said the ACLU realizes the districts have significant fiscal issues, but schools do not have the right to put families off.

“If the law needs to be litigated, let it be litigated,” Bonney said. “But these students should be able to exercise their right to transfer right now.”

Five neighboring districts have sued Kansas City Public Schools, saying its policy is unlawful and transfers should not occur until the policy disputes are resolved. A sixth joined the case, which is set for a hearing Thursday.

In a written statement, the neighboring districts’ attorney, Duane Martin, said Kansas City needs to meet the policies of the surrounding districts before transfers can occur.

“The legal petition filed on behalf of five school districts … does not seek to deny any student’s right to transfer,” he said. “… The enrollment of transfer students can occur when the sending district complies with state statute and local school board policies.”

Like it or not, Bonney said, the law allows no concessions for school boards’ policies.

Allan Hallquist, an attorney for the Kansas City district, told The Associated Press that the district didn’t disagree with the ACLU’s position. He also said the district isn’t stopping students from transferring.

In court filings, the receiving schools have estimated that as many as 1,500 students have inquired about transferring. Officials fear that unmanaged transfers could bankrupt Kansas City and cause too much disruption in receiving schools.