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Education

Three Clayton residents join lawsuit against school transfers

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 22, 2011 - Three residents of the Clayton School District have joined the lawsuit involving St. Louis students trying to enroll in the Clayton schools and having the city school system pay their tuition.

The students' arguments were backed by an opinion issued by the Missouri Supreme Court last summer, but the high court sent the case back to St. Louis County Circuit Court for further action. Attorneys for Clayton schools, the St. Louis Public School District and the state of Missouri met with Judge David Lee Vincent III Friday prior to a trial date set for Sept. 26.

At the meeting, Vincent granted the motions filed this week by Clayton school district residents Janis Abrams, Judith L. Glik and Elizabeth L. Wack. The motions, which were filed by the same lawyers who are representing the Clayton School District in the case, argue two main points:

  • The Hancock amendment to the Missouri Constitution prohibits the transfers because they represent an unfunded mandate on Clayton schools and Clayton taxpayers.
  • It is impossible for Clayton to comply with the requirements of the lawsuit, given the relative size of the school districts.

The lawsuit, known as the Turner case, has been the subject of intense discussion among educators, lawmakers and others in Missouri since it was handed down last summer. In its ruling, the court said that according to Missouri law 167.131, students who live in unaccredited school districts have the right to transfer to accredited districts in adjoining counties, with their home district paying the tuition. The receiving district must accept any students who apply, the court ruled.

Currently, only St. Louis and Riverview Gardens are unaccredited among Missouri school districts. In the wake of last year's Supreme Court ruling and further legal action, another judge in St. Louis County ruled last month that the Webster Groves schools must accept a high school student from St. Louis. Webster Groves plans to appeal that decision.

The filing this week by the three Clayton residents argues that their school district should not have to accept students from St. Louis because the state does not provide funding to pay for the transfer, as required by the Hancock amendment.

Further, they argue, the method of payment that state law does provide, billing the student's home district for tuition, is "unconstitutional and unenforceable."

The taxpayers also cite arguments made by Missouri in the case, saying that without the ability to refuse to admit students, including those who may not now be in public schools, the Supreme Court has created a situation that is impossible for school districts to cope with.

"There are in excess of 50,000 school-age children residents in the city of St. Louis," their pleading says, adding that the Clayton schools have "a current student body of approximately 2,500 pupils."

"As a practical matter of demographics," they continue, "transfer of even a small percentage of students living in the city of St. Louis to a small district like School District of Clayton would be impossible. The School District of Clayton and all the other St. Louis County school districts simply lack the space and other resources needed to accommodate tens of thousands of transfers."

Another argument says that the Turner ruling clashes with the 1999 federal court settlement of the areawide school desegregation case, which requires the state of Missouri to "continue to pursue a policy of desegregation."

"A state mandate authorizing segregative publicly funded transfers," their motion argues, "violates this requirement and would therefore also be a violation of the state's obligations under the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th amendment, and compliance with that mandate would therefore be an impossibility."

They also say that other difficulties would arise in the area of special education, and the financial burden imposed by the Supreme Court ruling "would effectively bankrupt the City District, rendering compliance with the statute a financial impossibility, and defeating the ongoing effort by that district to achieve reaccreditation."

In a broader view they say that if the transfers are funded through the state's school foundation formula, they would "place a massive new burden on that formula (which is already underfunded), resulting in the further underfunding of education statewide. This problem would be compounded by the inclusion of private and parochial school students, who are not currently in the public schools and are not counted in the state foundation formula calculations."

Finally, they argue that compliance with the Supreme Court ruling "requires the bumping of resident local students from their school" in Clayton.

Chris Tennill, spokesman for the Clayton schools, said the district knew that the residents were planning to seek to intervene in the Turner case.

"We were aware of what was going on and were a party to this," he said. "This is an additional way for us to defend this thing."

Tennill said Clayton now has 72 tuition-paying transfer students; 20 are from St. Louis, none from Riverview Gardens.

In an earlier filing in the case, the students seeking to enroll at Clayton and have SLPS pay their tuition said that Clayton and other districts who support their case "are waging a tireless and obviously well-funded effort to thwart the lawful implementation of the Supreme Court's opinion and accompanying mandate in this case. It is obvious that the districts will endeavor to interminably prolong this litigation so that they do not have to deal with the perceived practical problems that they plainly believe the Supreme Court has caused them."

By such action, it said the students "are most directly and acutely victimized," spending thousands of dollars. "This court should relieve them of their financial hemorrhaging now."

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