Kansas City school district enters a pivotal time

Everything Kansas City hopes and fears in a chaotic student transfer law is playing out in the St. Louis area.

Scenes from the east side of the state show children peering out the windows of 6 a.m. buses, choosing to endure a long ride from their unaccredited districts to accredited schools as much as 20 miles away.

In town meetings in the receiving districts, images of scared parents begging for increased security, even metal detectors, have been countered by warm overtures striving to welcome children so far from home.

And for every child seeking a seat in a new district, three children remain behind in the struggling Normandy and Riverview Gardens districts, which the state says are on course to go bankrupt.

If that scenario were to come to Kansas City, Superintendent Bob Bartman of the Center school district said, “you’ll create a downward spiral in an already fragile situation.”

Big decisions are coming this fall on the future of Kansas City Public Schools, decisions that will spread in shock waves across all of its neighboring districts.

Most everyone agrees that the latest turn St. Louis has taken on the nation’s tortured path toward high-quality education for all is not the way to go.

But Kansas City may have to follow in step.

The timing is maddening to Kansas City Superintendent Steve Green, who fears that an anticipated report of “dramatic” improvement in the district’s academic performance may not be able to stop the tide of events.

The annual statewide report on school district performance will be made public Friday.

The unaccredited Kansas City school district, in progress reports to the state, has been projecting for months that it will exceed the score it needs to be eligible for provisional accreditation.

It will happen, Green said. The score, when it is made public, will surprise a lot of people.

If only the Missouri State Board of Education would grant Kansas City provisional accreditation, the crippling threat of the student transfer law would disappear, he said. Potentially divisive public debate on state control of the district would ease.

“We’re here, knocking at the door” of provisional accreditation, Green said. “It would be tragic if we had to experience what I understand is going on at Normandy and Riverview Gardens.”

There will be time to talk about all these things, said Missouri Education Commissioner Chris Nicastro.

But there are reasons the state may be reluctant to grant a hasty reprieve for the long-struggling district.

The state wants to see sustained growth, generally over three years, before elevating a district’s accreditation status.

The performance report coming Friday will be the first under a new cycle of the state’s school accountability system. The state has been advising districts that it does not expect to assign new accreditation designations under the new system until 2015.

Kansas City is in a unique situation, Nicastro said. And it remains the prerogative of the state board to change a district’s accreditation status at any time.

“All those things will be considered,” she said. “But we don’t want to make premature calls, and that goes both ways.”

The ramifications of the transfer law run deep and are still being realized, but Nicastro said she is also hesitant to recommend a swift decision on Kansas City as a way of sidestepping the law.

“There is integrity to the accountability system,” she said, “and we have to maintain that.”

The state education department has been preparing a plan to develop what Nicastro hopes will be a systematic approach to address all struggling school districts across the state.

The state will be proposing the plan before the state school board at its August meeting, which begins Monday.

A new law that takes effect Aug. 28 gives the state the authority to begin immediately a process of potential intervention in unaccredited districts. Previously, districts had to be unaccredited two full school years before the state could intervene.

The fact that the state can intervene at any time might make it easier for the state board to consider elevating Kansas City’s status even one year after it were to score above the provisional threshold, Green said.

Nicastro is proposing that the state immediately dispatch more people to provide oversight of the unaccredited districts as an interim step while it convenes community meetings to develop plans specific to each district.

The state intends to hire a consultant agency to help develop a statewide process.

The plan would be flexible to the circumstances of each community, Nicastro said. The choice of action could range from simply aiding the district’s school board and administration to replacing the board or going as far as dissolving the district into other districts.

“Instead of fixing this and fixing that, I’m encouraging that we think more systematically on what we need to do in failing districts,” she said.

She wants to have a plan ready by January to prepare for whatever action is decided for the 2014-2015 school year.

The transfer law

In the meantime, there’s no ignoring the law that allows students to transfer.

It permits families in unaccredited districts to enroll in an accredited district, with tuition and transportation provided by the failing district.

The law provides for no discretion by the receiving districts in limiting the number of students who come, and it offers no remedy for the heavy costs on the unaccredited districts. Alarmed lawmakers, bogged down every year in political tugs of war, have failed to fix the law.

And hope for any court-ordered remedy was lost in St. Louis and is fading in Kansas City.

The Missouri Supreme Court in June handed down a ruling in a St. Louis area case declaring that the law is constitutional and should be enforced. It prompted the state to set up a list of recommended guidelines for affected school districts to put transfers into action.

Because a similar court case from the Kansas City area was — and is — still pending before the high court, Kansas City districts chose not to implement the law, at least this year.

But the outlook is grim.

The Normandy and Riverview Gardens districts, with combined enrollment of 10,600 students, saw more than 2,600 seek transfers into more than 20 districts by the Aug. 1 deadline in the state’s guidelines.

Families willing to provide their own transportation could pick any school within the county or any connecting county. The state determined it was reasonable for the unaccredited districts to designate a district or two to receive any students who wanted to be bused.

Some of the districts receiving the most students are trying to preserve class sizes by limiting the number coming in, and they are facing threats of more lawsuits.

Nicastro has written legislators advising them that transportation and tuition costs are projected to total more than $35 million for Normandy and Riverview Gardens.

Normandy does not have enough funds in reserve to last the year, and Riverview Gardens would run out next year.

The situation could have been more complicated, but St. Louis Public Schools, with an enrollment of 25,200 students, was granted provisional status in October 2012 after five years as an unaccredited district.

Some parents in unaccredited districts have worried about how their children will be welcomed. And school officials on the receiving end worry about the strain on children traveling many miles a day back and forth.

“There’s got to be a better answer than taking children away from a community school,” said Kirkwood School District spokeswoman Ginger Cayce.

Leaders in the receiving districts have worked to welcome the students. They’re trying to make room and shuffle schedules without disrupting the plans of the home students.

They want the incoming students involved in extracurricular activities, though it is unclear how those needing transportation will get late bus rides home.

The children from the unaccredited districts are getting a choice for a stronger school, but at a difficult cost. And unaccredited districts still serving thousands of students and their communities are finding it even harder to turn their schools around.

“If the result (of Missouri’s remedy for struggling schools) is the financial catastrophe of the unaccredited district … how do you improve?” attorney Duane Martin said. “How do you become a better school?”

Martin represents several Kansas City area districts that challenged the transfer law, saying it is unconstitutional because it effectively creates an unfunded mandate.

The districts and the state are still filing briefs with the Supreme Court. Martin does not expect a ruling until later this year or early 2014.

The state’s guidelines recommend that families seeking transfers make their requests by Feb. 1 for the 2014-2015 school year.

Can all this get fixed by then?

“I want people coming to the table with ideas,” said Missouri Rep. Mike Lair, a Chillicothe Republican who chairs the legislature’s Joint Committee on Education.

The committee has added a special hearing Oct. 1 to try to agree on solutions it can take to the General Assembly in the next session.

History weighs against them. The transfer law has been an urgent issue on lawmakers’ plates for at least three sessions, without any resolution.

“I don’t want to rehash where we came from,” Lair said. “We need to make sure we keep school districts solvent. And we need to do what is necessary to get these kids a good education.”