Local school districts, including Webster Groves and Kirkwood, hope state lawmakers will provide a fix to a recent Missouri Supreme Court ruling that could result in a rapid influx of students from unaccredited districts transferring to neighboring districts.
That possibility is the result of the court's July opinion in the Jane Turner vs. School District of Clayton case that school districts are mandated to accept any student from an unaccredited district and have no say so in the matter. There are several bills currently proposed in the General Assembly addressing the topic.
In the St. Louis area, both the St. Louis Public Schools (SLPS) and Riverview Gardens School districts are unaccredited. Under current law, students from these districts can choose to attend an accredited district in the same or an adjoining county.
Last week, Webster Groves Superintendent Sarah Riss testified in Jefferson City at a public hearing on a bill filed in the Missouri House of Representatives (HB 763) sponsored by State Rep. Rick Stream, R-Kirkwood. The bill would essentially return to school districts local control in deciding how students from unaccredited districts would be accepted.
Riss said Webster Groves is a voluntary member of the St. Louis Student Transfer Program, which was established in 1981 to increase racial integration in St. Louis-area public schools. She said the district has well over 200 students from the program.
"It's evident we're open minded and that we value diversity," she said. "We pride ourselves on our small class sizes. But several of our schools are already at full capacity. Who's going to pay for the extra classrooms we'll need?"
The Webster Grove's Legislative Advocacy Committee has been working on educating the community on the potential impact the court ruling could have on the district. The committee's website has a wealth of information on the subject, as well as sample letters community members can send to legislators.
Turner vs. Clayton: The case at the forefront of the controversy
Shortly after the St. Louis school district lost its accreditation in 2007, Jane Turner and three other parents, representing six students attending the Clayton School District, sued the Clayton and St. Louis districts and the City of St. Louis Board of Education. The students, who live in the SLPS district, were attending Clayton schools based on personal tuition agreements.
The plaintiffs claimed that because the SLPS district became unaccredited, it should pay their children’s tuition and that the Clayton district should send the tuition bills to the transitional district. The parents pointed to a state statute that requires unaccredited districts to pay the tuition costs of its students who choose to attend an accredited school in an adjoining district.
The St. Louis County Circuit Court ruled in favor of both school districts, finding that the statute was inapplicable to the SLPS district. After several appeals, the case ended up going to the Missouri Supreme Court. In July, it issued its opinion and subsequently, sent the case back to the lower courts to decide.
Chris Tennill, a spokesman for the Clayton School District, said the St. Louis County Circuit Court has stayed the case until May 31. That’s when state lawmakers end their current legislative session. He said the Supreme Court weighed in on three key issues. In a nutshell, they include:
- The state law the plaintiffs cited does apply to the SLPS district. Contrary to the lower court's judgment, the Supreme Court maintains that unaccredited districts should pay the tuition for students who choose to attend accredited districts. Its ruling stated that: "It is clear that (state law) applies to the transitional school district, that it requires the Clayton school district to admit the students and that it mandates the transitional school district pay the students' tuition."
- Tuition agreements supercede the plaintiffs' rights for restitution. The Supreme Court decided that the parents are not entitled to restitution for tuition paid to Clayton because the St. Louis public schools became unaccredited because of existing tuition agreements. Court documents state: "By arguing that the Clayton School District is now required to seek payment from the transitional school district and that the parents are entitled to restitution for tuition previously paid to the Clayton School District, the parents are attempting to bind the district beyond the terms of their tuition agreements."
- School districts are required to accept any student from an unaccredited district. On a 4-to-3 vote, the court concluded that other state laws giving districts discretion in deciding whether or not to admit students from unaccredited districts do not apply under existing state law. Furthermore, it noted that legislators in 1993 removed a section of the statute that read: "but no school shall be required to admit any pupil." The court's interpretation states: "The plain and ordinary meaning of the language in (the statute) that 'each pupil shall be free to attend the public school of his or her choice' gives a student the choice of an accredited school to attend, so long as that school is in another district in the same or an adjoining county, and requires the chosen school to accept the pupil."
Tennill said the third issue is what's causing all of the concern on the part of local school districts. He said the interpretation affects all but five Missouri school districts.
"It's a major local control issue and school capacity is at stake," he said, noting the Clayton district currently has an enrollment of about 2,500 students. "All districts want to be able to manage that. It's why people buy houses and move."
And at least one Supreme Court judge agrees. In a dissenting statement, Supreme Court Justice Patricia Breckenridge said the majority's interpretation of the statute avoids the "absurd consequences" that could occur if the opinion prevails.
"To interpret (existing law) as placing a mandatory obligation on the Clayton School District to accept all pupils from the City of St. Louis who apply for admission would mean there is no limit to the potential influx of pupils that Clayton or any other school district in St. Louis County could face," she said in the statement.
Additionally, Breckenridge stated: "Under the majority’s interpretation of the relevant statutory provisions, school districts in St. Louis County would be required to accept pupils from the transitional school district even if the number of pupils seeking admittance exceeded their capacity or if St. Louis County school districts have difficulty collecting tuition payments from the transitional school district."