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Firefighters sue school districts over transfers

(Rachel Lippmann/St. Louis Public Radio)
Attorney Tim Belz takes questions on a lawsuit filed on behalf of five city firefighters, including Mike Killingsworth (L) and Shawn Ryan (R), who want three suburban districts and the SLPS to follow a state Supreme Court ruling on student transfers.

Updated at 1:40 p.m. with additional information from the Lindbergh School District.

Updated at 2:45 p.m. with information from the Webster Groves School District.

Updated at 3:57 p.m. with a statement from the Kirkwood School District.

A group of St. Louis city firefighters has sued the Kirkwood, Lindbergh and Webster Groves school districts, along with the St. Louis Public Schools, for not abiding by a Missouri Supreme Court ruling that allows students in unaccredited districts to attend nearby accredited public schools free of charge.

The five firefighters are currently paying parochial school tuition for 10 children ranging in age from 7 to 16. All say they have attempted to enroll their children in one of the three districts in the last few months and have been turned away. And they say that even if their children had been allowed to enroll, the St. Louis Public Schools is refusing to cover the tuition.

"I love the city, and I'm happy to live in the community that I serve," said 19-year firefighting veteran Shawn Ryan. (By city charter, firefighters must live in the city's boundaries, a requirement upheld last June).  "When I became a firefighter, I committed to keeping the St. Louis citizens safe. At the time, I was aware that that could mean a high level of uncertainty and danger. However, I didn't expect that the same level of uncertainty would come with planning my daughter's future."

Ryan says the charter schools in the city are still too unproven to provide the stability he wants for his 11-year-old daughter.

Though his lawsuit is over the same state statute - the so-called "Outstanding Schools Act" - attorney Tim Belz says this case is much less complicated than Turner vs. Clayton. It's a ruling in the Turner case, which is wending its way back through the court system, that the defendants in today's suit are accused of not following.

"The facts in Turner involve a family that was already sending a child to the Clayton School District and was paying tuition under an agreement with the family, which lived in St. Louis City and the Clayton School District," Belz said. "There's a claim in that case for compensation for past payments and we don't have any of those complications here."

Belz says he's hoping for a ruling on the firefighters' suit in two to three months. He says he has worked out a payment arrangement with the firefighters but provided no details.

Spokespersons for the Webster Groves and St. Louis Public Schools said their districts had not seen the litigation and could not comment. SLPS  spokesman Patrick Wallace says city schools will not be paying for tuition until the Turner case is resolved. The superintendent of the Lindbergh School District said he was unaware of any St. Louis firefighters attempting to enroll their children in his districtUpdated 1:40 p.m: Beth Cross, a Lindbergh spokeswoman, said one person identifying themselves as a St. Louis firefighter attempted to enroll their child in the district. She also had not seen the lawsuit and thus would not comment, but said Lindbergh schools are waiting for final clarification on the Turner ruling before accepting any transfers.

The Kirkwood School District released the following statement:

"The Kirkwood School District is waiting for guidance from the courts regarding non-resident students seeking transfer from unaccredited schools. We understand that this involves complex legal issues that we hope are resolved in the court system so that KSD can proceed appropriately. The Turner vs. Clayton court case is set for a bench trial on March 5, 2012. All indications point to the fact that the case will actually make it to trial on this date and that the trial will likely be completed by the end of that week. We currently have a list of 47 families from unaccredited school districts who are interested in attending Kirkwood Schools."



Rachel is the justice correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.

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