As Missouri schools begin preparing for another year of student transfers, the woman who brought the case all the way to the state Supreme Court is at the brink of bankruptcy and wondering where her daughters will get their education this fall.
Gina Breitenfeld is being sued by the Clayton School District for more than $24,000 in unpaid tuition. She says that the financial toll of the case, plus unpleasant comments about the transfers made within earshot of her daughters, prompted her to pull them out of the Clayton schools toward the end of the just completed school year.
She also had to give up the Clayton apartment she had rented to establish residency so that Elle, 15, and Savannah, 13, could continue in the district where they had attended class for several years as the transfer case wound its way through the courts.
Still, Breitenfeld said in an interview Wednesday, she is proud of what the case has brought and doesn’t regret anything that her family has gone through.
“Absolutely not,” she said. “It has been a long journey, and in the beginning I had no idea it would take this long to come to a conclusion or solve the education problem. But I feel very good that I stuck with it. I feel good about what we’ve accomplished as far as winning in the Missouri Supreme Court.
“Unfortunately, I can’t take advantage of that decision right now with my children.”
The case involves the law, passed in 1993, that allows students who live in an unaccredited school district to attend nearby accredited schools, with their home district paying the tuition. When it was first filed, the lead plaintiff was Jane Turner, a Saint Louis University professor married to a judge in St. Louis.
But by the time the case reached the Missouri Supreme Court for the second time, Turner’s sons had graduated and gone off to college. So the unanimous opinion that was issued on June 11, 2013, upholding the law and setting the transfer scramble in motion, was handed down in what had become the Breitenfeld case.
When that case began, the St. Louis city schools were unaccredited, which prompted both Turner and Breitenfeld to seek to take advantage of the transfer law. But by the time the case was decided, the city schools had regained provisional accreditation, meaning the law no longer applied to students living in the city.
Breitenfeld said that her daughters had begun attending Clayton schools when Savannah was in kindergarten and Elle was in second grade, so she hoped to keep them there. She is in legal talks to settle the debt for tuition for her daughters for the portion of the 2012-13 school year when the law no longer applied to them.
But for the school year just ended, she and her children leased an apartment at Clayton on the Park for $1,950 a month to establish residency in the district. The financial strain of that, plus the mortgage on the family’s home in St. Louis Hills – what Breitenfeld said totaled more than $5,000 a month – became too much, she said, and she’s in the process of completing a bankruptcy filing.
“We just couldn’t do it,” she said of the financial load.
To ease the burden, she took Savannah and Elle out of the Clayton schools toward the end of the year and home-schooled them. She is still trying to figure out where they will be learning when the new school year begins. Home school is still an option, but at this point, she said, “we’re not real sure.”
Financial and family toll
Besides the financial toll, Breitenfeld also talked of the burden on her divided family while her daughters went to school in Clayton. Her husband works in the city, so he had to keep living there while she and her daughters moved to the apartment.
“I felt like a single mom,” she said, “being in Clayton with the kids without my husband. He would come in for dinner once in a while during the week, and we would come to the house for dinner. He would help with the girls’ homework and things of that nature, and it was just really hard on our family being apart.”
Until recently, she said, Elle and Savannah have not experienced any adverse reaction about their family’s role in the transfer case.
But once details became public about the efforts by Clayton to obtain back tuition payments, “then there were a couple of comments made to the children or within their hearing distance. So at that point, my husband and I decided we don’t want to subject them to any negativity, so let’s just take them out of the school.”
Has the case had any lasting effect on her daughters?
“It’s hard to determine how much a child is affected,” Breitenfeld said. “I would say that once in a while they would make a comment that they didn’t want to go to school. I don’t know. It’s hard to tell.
“It definitely affected my husband and me because we didn’t want them subjected to any negative comments or in any way be the cause of a problem. But as far as what they felt, it’s hard to say.”
Still, as the legal and educational uncertainty surrounding the transfers continues, Breitenfeld insists that the lengthy journey has been worth it, for her family and for others who have been able to take advantage of the option to attend an accredited school.
“We knew all along that the city schools were not where we wanted our children,” she said. “Once we were educated and learned what we could do to change things, then we decided to go ahead and pursue it. We lived in the city. We paid high taxes in the city on our home. We had no options for our children as far as a good education, without going to a private or parochial school and paying that tuition. So at that point my husband and I decided, let’s get them into a good school system where they can get the education that they deserve…..
“I definitely have not stepped into anything reluctantly. I have from the very beginning felt very strongly about what we are doing. Unfortunately, Jane’s children graduated and had to pay tuition through graduation day and were not able to take advantage of the things she fought for. But being the lone survivor, I have no regrets.”