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As student transfer assignments for children from two school districts continued Monday, civil rights and school choice groups began to flex their legal muscles — questioning how the process has unfolded and whether hundreds of students can be denied their choice of schools.

The phones at Legal Services of Eastern Missouri have been ringing since late last week, after the transfer application deadlines passed in the Riverview Gardens and Normandy districts. Then, lotteries left hundreds of students without their first school choices.

Also in Riverview Gardens, dozens of parents have contacted attorneys after learning there isn’t room for their children in the districts where transportation will be provided: Mehlville and Kirkwood.

“The problem is what happens next with these kids,” said Dan Underwood, managing attorney for the Children’s Legal Alliance of the Legal Services of Eastern Missouri, a nonprofit organization that represents those who cannot afford a lawyer in civil cases.

In Mehlville, school Superintendent Eric Knost is trying to figure out how to respond to a letter from the American Civil Liberties Union of Eastern Missouri, which argues his school district cannot turn students away for space reasons.

“Missouri statutes do not permit your district to deny enrollment on this basis,” the letter states. “The Legislature’s mandate that you accept all eligible students is unambiguous.”

The same letter also went to Kirkwood Superintendent Tom Williams. His district was selected by the Riverview Gardens officials last week as the second school system where it would send buses, after Knost said Mehlville couldn’t meet the demand. Kirkwood also turned students away to keep class sizes under control.

“I understand what this letter from the ACLU states,” Knost said Monday. “But we have to consider how we are expected to handle this in a reasonable manner, in a short amount of time, without letting children get caught in the crossfire.”

Williams also said Kirkwood, like other school districts, has tried to find a practical solution and “came to the table in good faith.”

No one has filed a lawsuit over the transfer process. But there is no shortage of legal advice for parents from organizations questioning whether the law is being followed.

“We’re telling them we’re going to talk with our lawyers later today and see if there are any other options,” said Kate Casas, state director for the Children’s Education Alliance of Missouri, which advocates for school choice.

Caught in the middle are parents like Latonya Dethrow, who needs transportation for her two high school-aged daughters to transfer but was turned away minutes after the application deadline in Riverview Gardens.

“I feel like I’m shut out and they’re telling me no matter what, Riverview is unaccredited and that’s where my children have to attend,” she said.

For two months, school officials have wrestled with how to comply with a Missouri Supreme Court ruling that upheld a state school transfer law. The law allows children in unaccredited school systems to transfer to another district, and says the failing district must cover the tuition and transportation costs. But the law gives districts no direction in how to avoid potentially overcrowded classrooms and a chaotic start of school.

As a result, state officials have scrambled to set guidelines, such as an Aug. 1 registration deadline. In the St. Louis area, the Cooperating School Districts began coordinating the transfer effort, which applied to more than 10,000 students in the two unaccredited districts in north St. Louis County.

In all, 2,640 students applied to transfer out of Normandy and Riverview Gardens schools, according to numbers released Monday. They will be enrolled in 22 other school districts across the area. Most will go to the districts selected for busing: Francis Howell for Normandy students, and Mehlville and Kirkwood for Riverview Gardens students.

The estimated tuition and transportation costs to Normandy and Riverview Gardens has risen to $35.4 million. State Education Commissioner Chris Nicastro said if either district is unable to cover the tuition bills before spring, she will ask the Legislature for funding.

About 75 percent of the students in both districts — about 8,000 children in all — will stay.

“It appears that Normandy will not have enough resources to meet these obligations through this fiscal year; Riverview will likely get through this year, but not next,” Nicastro wrote in a letter to legislators Monday.

For the students who were placed in their first-choice schools, there was a feeling of relief and excitement Monday.

Eboni Harris got a voice mail message Friday night from Clayton High School Principal Dan Gutchewsky, letting her know that her son, a Normandy High student, would have a seat at Clayton High when school starts next week.

Harris and her son went Monday to the school to finish the enrollment process. She said they were welcomed and offered help for a successful year.

“It’s just a whole new world for us,” she said. “I feel like I’m giving him a second chance, an opportunity to do better.”

Meanwhile, attorneys, civil rights groups and school choice advocates continue to argue that every parent in a failing district who wants to transfer their child should be able to since the state law sets no restrictions. The St. Louis Chapter of the NAACP and the Civil Justice Clinic at Washington University Law School are also monitoring the transfer process.

Casas of the Children’s Education Alliance recalled a conversation with a Normandy mother who’s about to gain custody of her son who lives out of state. The mother wants to send him to a higher-performing district when he moves in with her, but she won’t have the necessary paperwork until next month.

“She was asking what she should do,” Casas said. “The answer that I give her right now is, we don’t really have an answer. There’s nothing in the law saying the kids can’t transfer after Aug. 1 ...We’re like everyone else. We’re feeling our way through it.”

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