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School Districts to Legislature: Save Us From a Flood of Students

School officials contend a recent Missouri Supreme Court ruling could send a stream of students from unaccredited districts to their classrooms; bills in the legislature may address the issue.

Local school districts, including Parkway, 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 v. 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 Missouri 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. 

The  is keeping a close eye on the issue, district spokesman Paul Tandy said. Tandy said it was hard to tell at this point what effect, if any, the ruling could have on Parkway schools. He said the district has some ability to accept more students, if needed.

"We do have some capacity, but not a lot, because our enrollment has remained fairly flat or declined in the last 10 years," Tandy said. "We have pockets here and there, and we've shared that with the state." But, Tandy said, there's not much wiggle room. When voters passed Proposition R, a tax increase, in 2006, the district made a commitment to keeping class sizes low; elementary school classes should average 19.2 students, middle school classes should have 22.5 students and high school classes should have 22.9 students. 

"The school board's first attempt would likely be to maintain those class sizes no matter what," Tandy said. But maintaining those class sizes could cost the district money. If more students were to enroll in the district, more class sections would have to be added, meaning the district would pay for more teachers' salaries and benefits, Tandy said.

Parkway is a part of the Cooperating School Districts (CSD), a nonprofit organization of 61 school districts that shares resources and services. CSD monitors the state legislature and acts as an advocate for the member school districts. Tandy said CSD has come out in support of House Bill 763, sponsored by State Rep. Rick Stream, R-Kirkwood. The bill would essentially allow school districts to decide how students from unaccredited district would be accepted.

Recently, Brentwood Superintendent Charles Penberthy testified in Jefferson City at a public hearing on a the bill. In a letter, Penberthy said that while unaccredited school districts would provide tuition money for students, local school districts fear they would need to raise class sizes and ultimately, have to seek local taxes to increase classroom space for students.

Parkway seems to be taking a wait and see approach though. It's not actively lobbying or encouraging district residents to contact their legislators.

"There's so much up in the air, it's hard to say at this point," Tandy said. "We just don't know. It could have a very large impact, or it could have hardly any. Because so much is up in the air, we haven't really tried to rally the troops on any particular stance."

Turner v. 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:

  1. 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." 
  2. 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."
  3. 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."

Patch Reporter  and Patch Editor Rachel Heaton contributed to this report.

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