School transfer case still needs to be decided, lawyers say | St. Louis Public Radio

School transfer case still needs to be decided, lawyers say

Mar 5, 2013

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: Even though the St. Louis Public Schools have regained provisional accreditation, lawyers told the Missouri Supreme Court Tuesday that a case involving a law letting students who live in unaccredited districts transfer to nearby schools still needs to be decided.

Judges on the court heard oral arguments in Jefferson City on an appeal from the St. Louis County Circuit Court of a ruling by Judge David Lee Vincent III that struck down the law because it violates the Hancock amendment. That amendment, approved by voters in 1980, says in part that no new mandate may be imposed on political subdivisions in Missouri unless the state provides money to pay for them.

In this case – once known as Turner, now known as Breitenfeld after the family with two daughters attending Clayton schools though they live in the city – the St. Louis and Clayton schools say they can’t afford to accommodate all the students they say could take transfer under the law.

But the Breitenfeld family and the state of Missouri counter that the law is valid – as the state Supreme Court already held in 2010, when it sent the case back to St. Louis County for resolution. The case was first filed in 2007.

The Supreme Court took the case under advisement.

One of the key pieces of evidence in the trial in St. Louis County last year was a survey taken that concluded if the law were enforced, more than 15,000 students from the city were likely to transfer to county schools.

The estimated cost of such an exodus of city students -- $224 million for tuition and another $40 million to $60 million for transportation – would all but wipe out the budget for the city schools and, district officials say, make it impossible to operate for the students left behind.

County schools argued that with no discretion to say how many students they would be required to take – the study showed 3,500 would transfer to Clayton, which now has just 2,500 students of its own – they would be forced to add facilities that would be paid for by their own residents.

In his ruling last May, Vincent sided with the city and Clayton districts, saying that the Hancock amendment prevented the state from imposing additional costs on them without providing the money to meet them.

He concluded that compliance with the law “is impossible and held to be of no force and effect” and the city schools and Clayton “are excused from complying with its mandate.”

Last fall, the state Board of Education voted to grant provisional accreditation status to the city schools. That action would mean that students who live in the city would no longer be able to take advantage of the transfer provision, which covers all students, including the Breitenfeld girls, who have never attended St. Louis Public Schools. Three school districts – Normandy, Riverview Gardens and Kansas City – remain unaccredited.

Because of their status – and the possibility that under a new school evaluation process, known as MSIP5, put into place by the state with the current school year, the city schools could again lose accreditation – the law needs to be clarified, lawyers told the Supreme Court Tuesday.

Doing so would help reduce uncertainty for school districts in the future, they argued.

A friend of the court brief filed by Cooperating School Districts, siding with Clayton and the city schools, put the argument this way:

“If this court upholds the statute, resulting in transfers from unaccredited districts, the CSD members could find themselves in a position of undertaking significant capital improvements, hiring teachers and staff, and accommodating unlimited numbers of transferring students….

“When unaccredited districts’ statuses change, transferring students would be sent back to the sending districts upon reaccreditation. The sudden departure of those students could, in turn, leave receiving districts with empty buildings and an oversupply of staff, resulting in significant layoffs and financial hardship to the taxpayers of the receiving districts….

“With the new and tougher MSIP5 standards, SLPS and other districts may swing back and forth between unaccredited status and provisionally accredited status in the coming years. If the court does not render a decision in the present case, it is likely that the issues presented herein will continue to evade review by this court. As the experience of SLPS demonstrates, it is possible for district accreditation to change from year-to-year before litigation in such matters reaches this court’s review. Accordingly, this case is not moot, and the court’s review is both appropriate and necessary.”

Under questioning by the judges, Richard Walsh, attorney for the city schools, emphasized that point, noting that the state both holds the power over accreditation for the St. Louis schools and would be responsible for paying aid for education. He said that to avoid a yo-yo effect, where the rug could be pulled out from under the city schools at any time, the issue needs to be decided.

“It’s not moot, your honor,” Walsh said.

Arguing on behalf of the state, James Layton said that Vincent’s ruling, taken to its logical conclusion, would mean that unless there was a specific line item appropriation by the legislature for everything required of a school district, any new requirement could be declared invalid under Hancock.

And because the city schools are now provisionally accredited, he added, there is no need to take into account what he called the “doomsday scenario” that the Clayton and city schools brought up at trial about the possibly crippling financial effects that massive transfers could bring.

Representing Gina Breitenfeld – whose two daughters have been attending Clayton schools for more than two years as the case has dragged on – attorney Elkin Kistner noted that it is “blatantly unfair” that she should have to pay Clayton schools nearly $50,000 in tuition, as included in Vincent’s ruling.

He said that without her and the “withering exhaustion” her family has experienced as it pressed the case, the effort “would have fallen apart.”

Mark Bremer argued on behalf of Clayton schools that the issue of line-item appropriations is "not the end of the world. They are not a problem.” The state has other ways for the state to provide money for programs, he said, and the court has ruled as much.

But, he said, with Hancock, “the people in 1980 made it very clear that whenever the state legislature decides to impose a mandate on a political subdivision, they have got to very clearly lay out the amount of money they are going to commit to that.”

Asked whether that would extend to, for example, a new requirement that a particular course such as English or Missouri history had to be taught in the schools, Bremer replied that the court has shown that there is a degree of flexibility allowed.

He noted that Clayton has allowed the Breitenfeld children to continue attending the district’s schools even though no tuition has been paid, by either the city schools or by the family, because it “puts the interests of children first.”

But, he noted in response to a question from the bench, if the city were to have to pay for the children’s tuition, it could mean one less teacher the city schools could hire.

“This money matters,” Bremer said, “and it affects the interests of children.”