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Alarmed by lack of good school services, firefighters consider joining education lawsuit

This article first appeared in the St. Louis beacon, Oct. 12, 2011 - Wayne Johnson's 7-year-old son, Ben, has just started kindergarten because of the developmental delays he suffers from his condition known as Williams syndrome.

Ben has spent the last few years in pre-school near his family's home in south St. Louis, and Wayne said he got a lot of the services there that he needed. But once he grew to the age where he really needed to be in kindergarten, the Johnsons found themselves in a bind.

They met with officials for the St. Louis Public Schools, but the meeting was far from satisfactory.

"We've never had that warm and cozy feeling with the St. Louis schools as you should have when you are going to leave your children for the day," Johnson said. "The meeting was contentious, with all of them trying to convince us he doesn't need this therapy or that therapy, or not as much of it, because of what it would cost them. That's not supposed to figure into the equation."

At this point, for most families, an option would be to move to another school district where services are better. But Johnson can't move out of the city because he has been a St. Louis firefighter for 16 years, and as a city employee he has to live within the city limits.

Private school is too expensive, he said, and parochial schools don't necessarily offer what Ben needs. The best alternative would be for Ben to attend a St. Louis County school, where he could get services from the Special School District, and the law says that because the St. Louis Public Schools are unaccredited, city residents should be able to transfer to any county school district, with the city schools paying tuition.

That law is now being challenged in what has come to be known as the Turner case, with city students who want to attend better schools on one side and county districts who don't want to have to take an unlimited number of city students on the other.

Soon, Johnson and other firefighters may join the fray, widening what has become a educational dilemma whose solution has so far eluded schools, lawmakers and others.

They're getting help from the Children's Education Alliance of Missouri, whose aim is to get the law enforced. Kate Casas, state director of the alliance, said the suit could turn into a class action effort, opening one more front on the battle.

"We think the Turner case is fascinating," she said, "but we don't see any need to wait. It seems to me the courts and the legislature keep kicking the can back and forth, and every time they delay, that's one more day or one more month or one more year that people are trapped in a failing school district."

A Widening Problem

The dispute over whether students living in unaccredited school districts should be able to enroll in neighboring districts, with their home district paying the tuition, hit a crisis point in July 2010, when the Missouri Supreme Court found in favor of city parents who had sued to have their children attend schools in Clayton.

But the court's ruling didn't end the legal battle. It sent the case back to St. Louis County Circuit Court to work out the details, including determining how many students any county district would be required to accept from St. Louis and now from Riverview Gardens, which has also lost its accreditation and is under state control.

Since that ruling, another judge in St. Louis County has made a similar finding in a case involving the Webster Groves schools.

Efforts to find a legislative solution to the issue faltered in Jefferson City this past year, with other education issues becoming involved. A compromise that could have ended the legal wrangling also fell short.

The Clayton case was supposed to go to trial last month, but the date was pushed back to January by several developments.

First, original plaintiffs Jane Turner and William Drendel dropped out of the case, though Gina Breitenfeld, another original plaintiff, amended her petition and continues. Then, Judge David Lee Vincent III granted a motion allowing the Special School District and two taxpayers who are part of the district to enter the case on the side of Clayton.

They made claims similar to those of other defendants, that the Hancock amendment to the Missouri Constitution prevents the state from imposing mandates onto school districts without providing the money to pay for them -- in this case, the county school districts that might incur additional costs if they had to take students from the city without being able to say how many they would accept, if any at all.

Their petition noted that any tuition that is charged by Clayton and is paid by the St. Louis Public Schools would not include the costs of educating or evaluating students with disabilities, adding in bold-faced type:

"Tuition paid to Clayton is not tuition paid to SSD."

It also noted the possibility that a student who lives in the city may choose to attend one of the vocational-technical schools run by SSD, giving the district further interest in how the issue is settled.

In another wrinkle in the case, the state Board of Education has reclassified the Kansas City public schools as unaccredited, as of Jan. 1, so surrounding districts in the western part of Missouri now have the same kinds of concerns as those adjacent to St. Louis and Riverview Gardens, which had been the only unaccredited districts affected by the case.

In a video that echoed the concern expressed by other educators in the Kansas City area, the superintendent of schools in Independence, Jim Hinson, said the situation remains fluid, and his district stands ready to work with state education officials to see how it plays out:

"We will watch this case very carefully to see how it might impact the Independence school district. We are not panicking about this situation. We are not in a situation right now where we're having to make decisions for tomorrow or next week or even next month. We have several months now to really plan for what this might look like."

No Options on Housing

Johnson and fellow firefighters already have been waiting to see how the case will play out, and they are becoming impatient. Because of Ben's needs, Johnson and his wife have become active advocates for their son, but their efforts have not always been successful.

In testimony for a legislative education committee last month, Johnson told how they met with St. Louis Public School officials to try to get the therapy for their son that he needs.

"When Ben was 5 and we looked into enrolling him into kindergarten," Johnson said, "SLPS refused to provide an aide to Benjamin despite the fact that he needed assistance in everything from walking stairs to toileting. Ben would also be extremely vulnerable in that he would walk off with anyone if not carefully monitored. The SLPS answer to this was to simply warehouse Ben in a special room where he would be left to sit without being challenged or with the benefit of positive peer modeling, which benefits him greatly.

"Illustrating the real concerns of SLPS was the presence of a financial officer at one of our IEP meetings! It became all too clear that the district could not and would not provide a safe and competent educational environment for Ben."

So Ben went to a private preschool until he outgrew that option and began kindergarten at a charter school this fall. Insurance that his family has because Johnson was deployed to Afghanistan with the Reserves will pay the tab for a therapist for a while, but that disappears in January, he said in an interview.

Johnson would prefer that Ben go to a school with services from Special School District in St. Louis County, and he knows that things are only going to get harder as his son grows older.

"We know it's not going to be settled any time soon," Johnson said. "He'll probably stay in the charter school. He's reasonably safe there, and the staff is welcoming. It's tolerable, even though he may not be getting the best education possible. The gap between what he's getting and what he's going to need is only going to get bigger."

Johnson's colleague at the firehouse at Grand and Potomac, Andrew Hesse, faces a similar situation. His oldest child, Alex, has ADD, and while she and her two siblings are in private schools, he figures he won't be able to pay that tuition much longer.

He has talked with officials in the Webster Groves, Mehlville, Affton and Kirkwood districts about having his children transfer there under the law, but the answer was always the same.

"All four of them said that until the Turner suit was settled," Hesse said, "they're not making a decision."

Both men said they have other firefighters ready to join them in filing suit to gain access to county schools. They don't have much hope that the residency requirement will be changed; a state law that would have let them move out of the city was struck down by a judge who said only an amendment to the city charter could alter the policy.

Though Mayor Francis Slay applauded that ruling, he also supports the effort to have the school transfer law enforced, said Robbyn Wahby, his executive assistant for education.

"Whether people have to live in the city or want to live in the city," she said, "if they don't feel they have access to the kind of quality schools they deserve, we support them."

She said City Hall has been active in efforts to resolve the situation.

"We understand the concerns of county districts about overcrowding," Wahby said, "but they have to be reasonable. They can't all of a sudden make their student-teacher ratio nine so they don't have to take any students from the city.

"A solution has to be as bold as the court decision that currently exists. Children have a right to an education in an accredited school. That shouldn't be taken away from them because of their ZIP code. We want families living in the city. We don't want them feeling they have to leave the city to get that right."

The firefighters say it's not a question of wanting to change their ZIP code or leave their home; it's simply a drive to get the schooling their children need.

"We have to do what's best for our son," Johnson said. "We like living in our neighborhood. We have a small house, but we like it. I love working for the city and working for the Fire Department. I probably could have left years ago and worked in St. Louis County, but I have no desire to do so.

"So if there's another way our children can get the education they deserve, I'm all for it."

On the Other Side

Tonya Booker has similar concerns for her 9-year-old daughter, Carmen, that Johnson and Hesse have for their children. But because she lives in Clayton, not in the city of St. Louis, she has joined the Turner lawsuit on the other side, supporting the argument that county districts shouldn't be saddled with unfunded mandates.

Carmen attends Meramec elementary school in Clayton and receives services from the Special School District, where Booker is on the parent advisory council. At a council meeting, she heard what was going on with the transfer legislation, and she decided to get involved.

"Special School District is always telling us that it is the last to be thought of in a lot of things," she said in an interview, "like legislation or budgeting, because people just tend to forget about it. I asked if there was anything I could do to help, since I live in Clayton and my daughter gets services from the Special School District.

"They said they were actually trying to join the case and needed a representative from Clayton, so my husband and I talked about it and we joined."

Asked whether she thought it was strange that her family is in a situation similar to that of the firefighters in the city, but geography is what separates them, Booker said she didn't look at the situation that way.

"I'm on my daughter's side," she said. "I really just want to know what we can expect as parents, no matter what. I come at it from two angles. If there is going to be some law that affects how my daughter receives services, because she's in the school district of Clayton and is getting services from Special School District, I want to know what to expect.

"From what my husband and I think, and based on my conversations with people at Special School District, we just want to know what's going to happen, and we want to be a part of that now, instead of trying to scramble and get something later."

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