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School transfer trial comes down to duel over numbers

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 5, 2012 - Based on Monday’s opening arguments, the new court trial over Missouri’s law governing where students who live in an unaccredited school district may attend class is likely to come down to two sets of numbers.

Lawyers for the Clayton School District, where the plaintiffs want to transfer from St. Louis, and for the city public schools, which would have to pay the bill, painted a scenario where thousands of students would leave the city for accredited schools in St. Louis County, bankrupting the city's school system.

But lawyers for Gina Breitenfeld, who filed the suit seeking to have her children attend classes in Clayton, and for the state of Missouri, which is defending the law, said the impact of the court case will be much more limited – only to Savanna and Elle Breitenfeld, at a cost of about $40,000 a year.

The trial, which expected to last through Wednesday, is the latest court action in a case that stems from a Missouri Supreme Court ruling in the summer of 2010. It upheld the state law from 20 years ago that says students who live in an unaccredited public school district may attend classes in an adjacent accredited district, with their home district paying the tuition and the transportation costs.

Lawmakers have tried to come up with a legislative fix for the situation, generally known as the Turner case for original plaintiffs whose children have since graduated. But their efforts have become bogged down with other education issues, and the trial in the circuit court of St. Louis County Judge David Lee Vincent III, after being postponed several times, began on Monday with a statement from lawyer Elkin Kistner that no one could disagree with: “For Gina Breitenfeld and her two children, this has been a long journey.”

In his opening statement, Kistner said that the Supreme Court ruling in the case – and the law that it upheld – are both straightforward and unambiguous. He said efforts by the other side to block the Breitenfeld children from attending Clayton schools were trying to raise defenses that are both wrong and inapplicable.

“This case is about the Breitenfeld children and no one else,” Kistner said.

But Mark J. Bremer, attorney for Clayton schools, said implementing the law would violate the Hancock amendment to the Missouri Constitution because it would impose an unfunded mandate on the receiving schools. He also used what was called the “impossibility” defense, saying that a ruling for the plaintiffs would be “completely unworkable” and result in too many students transferring to county districts, overwhelming their ability to teach them and making it impossible for them to plan properly.

“Students could arrive in surprising numbers in the middle of the semester,” he said. “There would be nothing a school district could do to plan in advance that would make sure there would be teachers, textbooks and places for them to sit.”

Much of the defense’s case centered around numbers, of both dollars and students.

Citing a study commissioned by Clayton that said more than 15,000 city residents would transfer to county schools if the law is implemented, lawyers said more than 3,500 of those would come to Clayton alone, more than the 2,500 who attend class there now. Such an influx would result in the need for $137 million in capital costs, the attorney said.

For the city schools, which would have to pay the tuition and transportation costs for the transferring students, the bill would run to more than $223 million in tuition and up to $60 million in transportation costs, leaving no funds left to educate the 16,500 students who would remain in city schools.

Further, attorneys for the city schools noted, such a financial hit would undercut the progress that the system has made so far in areas such as academic achievement, planning and fiscal stability – areas where improvement is needed if the St. Louis Public Schools are to regain accreditation from the state.

In response, James Layton, with the Missouri attorney general’s office, noted that the Hancock amendment defense is not a valid one, because the amendment is designed to protect taxpayers, not school districts. And, he said, the study about potential transfer students, even if the numbers are accurate, would not necessarily result from a ruling in favor of the plaintiffs in this trial.

“Two students,” he said. “This case is about two students, not tens of thousands of students. Two students.”

Layton added: “There is no support for the premise that you can get out of paying for the two students in this case because you can’t pay tuition for tens of thousands of others.”

The only witness heard on Monday was Terry Jones, political science professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, who conducted the telephone survey that came up with the estimated number of potential transfer students.

He defended the study’s conclusions and methodology in response to a barrage of questions about research done in similar circumstances, the assumptions that respondents may or may not have made regarding the chances of the city schools regaining accreditation and the possibility of bias creeping into the results.

Overall, parties seemed likely to concur with Layton’s first statement in his opening remarks:

“What an odd trial.”

Testimony is set to resume at 9:30 a.m. Tuesday.

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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