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School funding

A school bus exits Normandy High School on May 3, 2013. Photo by Stephanie S. Cordle, scordle@post-dispatch.com

With phone calls trickling in from parents in failing districts who want to transfer their children to better schools, school officials throughout the region are now counting on the Legislature to help them make sense of a Missouri Supreme Court ruling.

But whether state lawmakers will now tackle what has thus far been a tangled political issue is unclear.

In the meantime, school officials are waiting for further legal advice from their own attorneys on Tuesday’s high court ruling, which has the potential to prompt thousands of students in unaccredited districts to seek out better schools.

“We’re taking names until we receive some direction,” said Jana Shortt, spokeswoman for the Ferguson-Florissant School District.

Tuesday’s Supreme Court ruling centers on a statute that allows students in unaccredited school systems to transfer to higher-performing ones in the same or adjacent counties at no expense to their families. The failing district is responsible for paying tuition and transportation costs.

In the St. Louis area, Riverview Gardens and Normandy school districts are unaccredited. St. Louis Public Schools shed that designation last fall.

Leaders of unaccredited districts worry that covering tuition and transportation costs for transfering students could hurt effort to improve schools and even bankrupt them. Those factors, some say, led to the failure of the now-defunct Wellston district.

Meanwhile, districts who would receive the transfering students fear crowded classrooms and staff shortages.

Don Senti, executive director of Cooperating School Districts of Greater St. Louis, said school districts weren’t trying to block transfers because they didn’t want the students. They do, however, want to have some control over the transfer process.

Dozens of superintendents are expected to discuss the matter Friday at the organization’s offices in Creve Coeur.

“It’s not an issue of standing with our arms folded,” Senti said. “What we’ve been asking for is reasonable parameters. Class sizes. When can we say we’re full? School boards need to have some local control or the quality of the district would decline and no one would want to transfer.”

The parameters that Senti envisions could be established by a single line or two in the current statute. But a legislative fix has to this point been entangled in a broader debate about school choice.

In recent years, legislation that would have defined exactly how students could transfer, at what numbers and under what terms have failed to gain enough support. Advocates of school choice have tied such a fix to legislation that would broaden other forms of choice, such as issuing tax credits to parents who enroll their children in private schools.

Jane Cunningham, a former Republican state senator from Chesterfield, attempted to strike such a deal in 2011. “I offered a solution that people turned their backs on,” she said.

House Education Committee Chairman Steve Cookson, R-Poplar Bluff, said addressing school transfers wasn’t on lawmakers’ radar, but he expects it will become a key issue in light of the court’s ruling.

“I’m sure it will be a topic of much discussion when the Legislature reconvenes next year,” he said, adding: “All cards are back on the table.”

What is known is that the issue will probably not be part of any special session that could accompany the veto session scheduled for September. 

Gov. Jay Nixon has the authority to call for and define the scope of a special session. The Legislature does too, though the body never has. Nixon’s focus is the bills the Legislature passed earlier this year and finalizing the budget, according to his spokesman, Scott Holste.

Elkin Kistner, the attorney for the parent at the center of the transfer dispute, criticized the Legislature for previously relying on the courts to come up with a solution.

“The Legislature should get off its rear and be forthright about this problem and try to solve it,” Kistner said.

The case involves two children living in St. Louis who attend Clayton schools. Their mother, Gina Breitenfeld, was one of several parents who sued the Clayton district in 2007 when its officials refused to send their tuition tab to St. Louis Public Schools, which was unaccredited at the time.

The ability to transfer to other districts would apply to about 10,000 students enrolled in Normandy and Riverview Gardens, as as well as the hundreds of other children in those districts who are home schooled or privately educated. The Kansas City school district is also unaccredited.

“My daughter doesn’t want to go back to Normandy,” said MarQuitta Miller of Hillsdale, whose daughter attends Normandy High. She would like to transfer her daughter to one of two magnet schools in St. Louis — one of which offers a naval junior ROTC program, the other of which focuses on science, technology, engineering and math education. “I want to send her to somewhere positive. All I want is a fair chance for my child.”

James Shuls of the conservative Show-Me Institute dismissed fears that student transfers would further cripple the struggling school systems having to finance them.

“Competition is good for schools,” Shuls said. “When students start leaving, they need to and will start to respond.”

In recent years, enrollment in Normandy and Riverview Gardens districts has dropped.

Sabrina Jackson, whose children are in elementary and middle school, left the Riverview district in 2011 and moved to Ferguson-Florissant.

“It was horrible,” she said. “I was just praying for my kids.”

Kimberly Buchanan also recently moved to the Ferguson-Florissant School District, and unsuccessfully tried to transfer her son from Riverview Gardens in 2010 as he entered kindergarten.

In the end, she said, she liked her experience at his elementary school. But she moved with middle school and high school in mind.

When asked how many she thought would take advantage of transferring, Buchanan said many parents were happy with their schools, despite the district’s status. “I don’t think it would be in droves,” she said. “I don’t think a lot of people are even aware.”

Elizabeth Crisp of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.