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As lawmakers debate school transfers, lawsuit is finally going to trial

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 2, 2012 - The long-running Turner case involving students who live in unaccredited school districts has a new name, but as it finally heads to trial in St. Louis County next week the issues remain the same:

How should schools implement a Missouri Supreme Court ruling that upheld a law letting such students attend schools in nearby accredited districts, with their home district footing the bill?

Should suburban districts have a say in how many students they accept from unaccredited districts?

Must students whose home district has lost accreditation stay in substandard schools?

Does the law run counter to the Hancock amendment to the Missouri Constitution, which says any such mandate must include money to pay for it?

Will the hundreds of millions of dollars that the ruling could cost bankrupt the St. Louis Public Schools?

Will the answers to these issues come from the courts or from lawmakers in Jefferson City, who have not been able to agree on what any new law should say?

The legislative shorthand for the case has become known as a “Turner fix.” That is the name of the city family who filed the original lawsuit against the Clayton School District after it refused to allow the Turner children to attend Clayton schools without paying tuition after the St. Louis Public Schools lost accreditation in 2007.

Now, the Turner children have graduated from Clayton schools; another plaintiff, Bill Drendel, also has left the case. But the lawsuit is being carried on by Gina Breitenfeld, whose two children, Savanna and Elle, are currently attending classes in Clayton. They are not paying tuition; Clayton has countersued for payment but has allowed them to remain enrolled as the case proceeds.

St. Louis County Circuit Judge David Lee Vincent has set aside two and a half days for trial in the matter, now known as Breitenfeld vs. the Clayton School District, beginning Monday afternoon. The proceedings originally were set for September, then for January, but have been continued as parties in the case have come and gone.

Court rulings, legislative debate

Since the Missouri Supreme Court issued its ruling in the summer of 2010, upholding the state law that lets students in an unaccredited school district transfer to accredited schools in adjacent areas, the topic has been hotly debated in legal, legislative and academic circles.

Most observers looked to lawmakers in Jefferson City to amend the law during their session last year, making the court case moot. But so many other education issues were tacked onto efforts to come up with a Turner fix that in the end, nothing was passed.  

As the trial was pushed back, lawmakers and others again began debating a legislative fix. And again, as the pre-filing of bills began late last year, it became clear that the solution would be tied up with other education issues, from the expansion of charter schools to the elimination of teacher tenure to the establishment of tax credit scholarships for students to attend the schools of their choice, whether public, private or parochial.

Meanwhile, the Kansas City schools lost accreditation Jan. 1, so the issue no longer involves just the St. Louis area, where the city schools and Riverview Gardens are the other two unaccredited Missouri districts.

And another judge in St. Louis County has also ruled on the law, again in favor of a student, this time one who lived in the city and tried unsuccessfully to enroll in schools in Webster Groves. In her ruling last summer, Judge Barbara Wallace took pains to say her decision did not extend beyond the single student involved, Jordan King-Willmann.

Since that ruling was issued, King-Willmann has moved from the city to St. Louis County, so she is no longer eligible to transfer free of charge to a county district. But the Missouri Supreme Court heard an appeal in the case anyway; arguments were similar to those expected in next week’s trial. The high court has not yet ruled.

Legal future remains cloudy

Whether any heavily laden legislation will win passage this year, and whether the Supreme Court’s new ruling will reaffirm its earlier one, remain open questions. Meanwhile, Vincent is set to hear arguments from the Breitenfelds, who want to attend Clayton schools as the law allows, and school districts ranging from Clayton to the city schools to Special School District and others, who say the requirement is disruptive and costly.

Elkin Kistner, who has represented the varying cast of plaintiffs as the suit has progressed, said one big change is that Vincent has determined that the school districts will be allowed to bring in constitutional issues. One of those is the unfunded mandate argument under the Hancock Amendment; another is the argument that allowing students from unaccredited districts to transfer would be a financial hardship on both the sending and the receiving districts.

A study done last year for the Cooperating School Districts said that students who were likely to transfer from St. Louis to adjacent accredited districts -– a number estimated at 15,000 -– could cost the city public schools as much as $309 million in tuition and transportation, more than its current budget of $275 million.

Whether those issues should be argued in the case, Kistner said, “We disagree with the trial determination to allow them to proceed down this path.”

Both Kistner and Chris Tennill, spokesman for the Clayton schools, said that Savanna and Elle Breitenfeld attend classes in Clayton and have been doing so without paying tuition. Whether they will ultimately be made to pay is one issue in the countersuit brought by Clayton against the family.

Tennill said that the district did not want to argue its case in public before the trial begins. But he noted that with all of the students involved in the suit, Clayton did not want the children’s schooling to be harmed by the court’s action.

“What we have not done, at any point with all of the students, is let the legal proceedings get in the way of educating the kids that are party to the lawsuit,” he said. “We have continued moving forward in that way.”

Both Kistner and Tennill agreed on one thing: Given all the twists and turns in the case, trying to predict what will happen after next week’s testimony is futile.

“We have learned enough as we have worked through this case that it is usually bad form to speculate,” Tennill said. “We are optimistic in getting the case tried in the three days that have been set aside. At that point, it will be up to Judge Vincent.”

Kistner said he did not believe that the judge will necessarily wait for legislators to change the law, if indeed they can come to any agreement.

“I don’t think he’s going to put anything off,” he said. “I think he’s ready to proceed. But I don’t like to be in the business to predict. He’s the judge.”

Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.

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