Judge blocks Missouri law on student transfers

A state law that could have allowed thousands of Kansas City and St. Louis students to transfer from unaccredited districts is unconstitutional and impossible to fulfill, a judge ruled Tuesday.

The ruling, by St. Louis County Circuit Judge David Lee Vincent III, swept across school districts on both sides of the state and the General Assembly, where legislators have been scrambling to “fix” the law.

Vincent essentially concurred with the St. Louis and Clayton school districts and their dire projections of financial ruin if the law stood — depictions that the Missouri attorney general’s office had criticized as an overly speculative “doomsday scenario.”

If schools were forced to comply, Vincent wrote in his 16-page decision, it “would overwhelm area school resources to the extent of adversely impacting local districts.”

The judge ruled against a parent with children living in the St. Louis school district who attend the Clayton School District. The family sued Clayton because it was not billing St. Louis for tuition under the law.

The parent’s attorney, Elkin Kistner, said the ruling has filled him with “profound despair.”

“I disagree with the ruling,” he said. “And I expect that (plaintiffs’ parent) Gina Breitenfeld will want to appeal.”

The case, known as the Turner case for the name of the original parent plaintiff, has been weighing over St. Louis since the summer of 2010. That’s when the Missouri Supreme Court ruled that the transfer law from 1993 requires that students be allowed to move to neighboring accredited districts at the cost of the unaccredited districts.

Previously, both unaccredited districts and receiving districts had been using discretion when to allow transfers.

The Supreme Court sent the case back to the St. Louis circuit court to work out implementation issues. Back at the circuit level, now that the transfer option was essentially ruled a government mandate, school districts challenged the constitutionality of the law. They argued it violated Missouri’s Hancock Amendment, which bars regulations or laws that would impose new costs on a public agency without new revenue.

Then, last fall, Kansas City learned that it would become unaccredited Jan. 1, bringing the concerns of the Kansas City area into the fray. Kansas City, like St. Louis, feared going bankrupt trying to comply with the potential transportation and tuition costs. And neighboring districts feared an uncontrolled flow of students into their buildings.

The judge’s ruling brings short-term relief to the school districts but doesn’t address the long-term problem, said Clayton School District spokesman Chris Tennill.

“We couldn’t be more thrilled with Judge Vincent’s ruling,” Tennill said. “This relieves the pressure on school districts and legislators trying to put together some kind of ‘Turner fix.’ But in the long term we still have to find a way of supporting unaccredited school districts and their students.”

The state had also entered into the case to defend the statute and its constitutionality under the Hancock Amendment. Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster issued a statement that his office would appeal the court’s ruling.

“Our office will appeal the decision and seek a ruling in the Missouri Supreme Court,” Koster said. “The Turner case presents one of the most important questions for public education in Missouri today, and we will request that the Missouri Supreme Court provide a ruling on this issue.”

The circuit court ruling landed heavily in Jefferson City, where lawmakers have been wrestling with several bills aimed at many issues over the state’s major unaccredited school districts.

“This is a huge decision,” state Sen. David Pearce, chairman of the Senate Education Committee. “We’re still trying to see what all the ramifications will be.”

Pearce and others had been working on legislation that would allow for transfers but give receiving districts the ability to control the number of transfers and limit the time of year when students can move. The question, he said, is whether schools and legislators still want to pursue that in the final 2½ weeks of the session.

Did legislators “just want a Turner fix? Or do we want a vehicle for education reform?” Pearce said. “We’ll pause and see what the next step will be.”

No parents or students had filed lawsuits to force transfers out of Kansas City, but several school districts have a case pending in Jackson County that also claims Hancock Amendment issues.

The Kansas City school district established a transfer policy in December that limited the amount of tuition it would pay to receiving districts. The receiving districts sued over Kansas City’s policy and haven’t completed any transfers. Instead, the districts have been keeping waiting lists while the St. Louis case and the Jackson County case are pending. The Jackson County case is set for trial June 25.

The St. Louis ruling will likely influence the Jackson County case, said Independence School District Superintendent Jim Hinson, but it does not have a direct impact.

“Our case continues,” he said.

Independence has received several hundred transfer requests, Hinson said. He and other area superintendents echoed concerns that school systems and policy makers still have work to do.

The stricken transfer law, said Center School District Superintendent Bob Bartman, “was designed to help people who want to transfer, but it does not address the problems of the overwhelming majority who would stay in a district.”

For an unaccredited district, Bartman said, “it’s hard to heal itself academically while it’s bleeding … (and) its budget is being drained. It’s something all of us in the education field should worry about, and be constructive and helpful.”

The Kansas City Public Schools issued a statement Tuesday saying the ruling recognized the “severe financial hardship” unaccredited districts would face “if forced to carry out an unfunded mandate.”

The district “wants to do what is best for its students…,” the statement read. The district “believes that stability is paramount, and at the end of the day building long-lasting relationships with principals, teachers and staff is what is in the best interest of students and families.”

The St. Louis parent and the attorney general’s office had argued that the issue at hand was whether the Breitenfeld children should be allowed to attend Clayton schools with their tuition paid by St. Louis.

There was little question that both districts could manage the small number of known transfer requests, they argued. The school districts were asking the court to dismiss the law based on what the attorney general called a “spurious … doomsday scenario.”

The purpose of the Hancock Amendment is “to protect taxpayers, not political subdivisions,” the attorney general argued in post-trial briefs. The purpose of the transfer law “is to protect individual students.” As long as allowing transfers would be harmless to taxpayers, “the Hancock Amendment cannot be a shield against those transfers.”