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Under current school transfer law, St. Louis schools could go bankrupt, analysis says

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 23, 2011 - If Missouri law continues to allow children living in an unaccredited school district to transfer to any adjacent district they want, with their home district paying the tuition, St. Louis Public Schools could have to pay as much as $309 million a year -- more than the district's current annual budget of $275 million.

That figure is extrapolated from a survey done in October and November by UMSL political science professor Terry Jones, which found that 15,000 students living in the city would be likely to take advantage of the opportunity to transfer to an accredited district in St. Louis County.

"Obviously this would exceed SLPS' operating budget, bankrupt them, and leave the students that remain with greatly diminished resources," the analysis concluded. "This would leave the district with little chance to regain accreditation.

"The state constitution is clear about the state's responsibility to provide an education for all children. Therefore, this enormous price tag would ultimately have to be borne by the state. With such added costs, it is likely that the foundation formula funding would be further reduced resulting in a reduction in funds available to every school district in Missouri."

A memo sent this week by Don Senti, head of Cooperating School Districts of St. Louis, to area school superintendents, board members and state legislators broke down the potential costs this way:

  • Using an estimated average tuition rate in St. Louis County school districts of $11,613, plus the conclusions of Jones' survey, tuition costs that would be paid by the city schools would total nearly $175 million.
  • Because about one-third of the students expected to transfer would need special education services, a conservative estimate of those extra costs was put at $44 million.
  • Finally, because the current law would require the city schools to pay transportation for the students leaving to go to the county, and students could choose any district they want, transportation costs were estimated at $90 million.

At the same time, the memo noted, city schools would receive less money from the state, which bases its payment on tuition. The survey assumes that not all of the 15,000 students who might transfer to county districts are currently attending city schools; some would go from charter schools, private or parochial schools or move out of the voluntary transfer program known as VICC that continues as part of the settlement of the longstanding desegregation case.
Still, the city schools would lose an estimated 31 percent of their current enrollment of nearly 25,000, putting even more of a financial strain on the system.

"Clearly under this scenario," Senti's memo said, "SLPS would either require extensive state subsidies or the operations and related costs of SLPS would need to be assumed by the state." 

The memo goes on to note that the $309 million figure does not take into account whatever extra costs the county districts might incur for new facilities needed to accommodate the additional enrollment resulting from the transfers out of the city. "It is not possible to estimate that expense at this time," the analysis said. "We can only assume it would be extremely costly."

Jones' survey was commissioned by the Clayton school district, which is the defendant in a lawsuit brought by the parents of city students who sought to have Clayton admit their children with the city school system paying the tuition. The law that the plaintiffs cite says that students who live in an unaccredited district have that right to transfer, with no restrictions on receiving districts on how many students they would accept.

The law was upheld by a Missouri Supreme Court ruling in 2010, but the court sent the case back to St. Louis County Circuit Court for details on the transfers to be worked out. That trial has been postponed several times, as parties to the case change and everyone involved looks to the legislature for possible revisions to the law.

While the case was the subject of much discussion in Jefferson City during this year's legislative session, no changes to the law were passed. With the Turner trial now set to begin March 5, efforts to change the law are expected to resume when legislators reconvene next month.

Sen. David Pearce, R-Warrensburg, who heads the Senate Education Committee, has prefiled a bill for next year's session that would modify the mandate of the current law in several ways.

First, the only students eligible to transfer out of the city would be ones who were enrolled in the city schools to start with. Then, before a student could transfer, the city schools would have to determine whether there is space available in a magnet school or in a school that has met the accreditation standards set by the state, even if the district as a whole has not met them.

Further, any district that receives transfer students would not be required to include those students' scores on the statewide assessment in that district's scores for three years. Finally, county districts would be required to establish criteria that would determine how many students they could take who would be taught by "highly qualified teachers in existing classroom space," and receiving districts would not be required to hire more teachers or build more classroom space. And if a student's home district regains accreditation, that student must return to the home district's school.

Those provisions track closely with the legislative agenda of the cooperating school district organizations in St. Louis and Kansas City.

In a message to legislators accompanying the cost estimates, Senti said that the analysis had been reviewed for accuracy by area school officials.

"The bottom line," Senti added, "is that the consequence of inaction could be more expensive than the court-mandated VICC desegregation program before the superintendents assumed responsibility for management. At its peak, 13,500 students transferred from city to county schools under the VICC program. Dr. Jones's research finds that over 15,000 students would be likely to transfer if the current law is not changed.

"It is important to understand that St. Louis County districts are willing to accept students from the city if the legislature will establish reasonable parameters which would maintain local control by local school boards."

The cost analysis noted that transportation costs to take students from St. Louis to districts in St. Louis County would be higher than the cost currently incurred by the desegregation program because deseg officials currently operate under a zone system -- students living in a certain area of the city may attend schools only in a certain area of the county.

Under the Turner situation, the analysis said, any student living anywhere in the city could transfer to any district in the county, so the cost savings from the zone system in the deseg program would disappear, possibly doubling the transportation cost per student, now $3,000 a year.

Currently, only St. Louis and Riverview Gardens are unaccredited in Missouri; after Jan. 1, Kansas City will be added to that list.

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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