JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — Mehlville School District will likely be party to a lawsuit filed this Thursday if they don’t accept the more than 300 students who chose, but were subsequently denied, transfer to Mehlville Schools from the unaccredited Riverview Gardens School District.
A 20-year-old law, the Outstanding Schools Act, and a recent Supreme Court ruling established the uneasy legal territory. The law states — and the court reaffirmed this summer — that children in unaccredited school districts must be given the chance to attend a better district in the same or adjoining county. It also says that failed districts must pay for the tuition costs for any student wishing to transfer out. The failed districts also pay the transportation costs to whatever school they deem their “official” choice for transfers.
In Riverview Gardens, the official choice was Mehlville, who almost immediately announced that they simply did not have the capacity to accept every Riverview student. Riverview Gardens then designated Kirkwood mere days before the suggested transfer deadline of August 1. For these two school districts, and these alone, Riverview will be responsible for providing transportation.
When the Aug. 1 deadline came and went, Mehlville placed more than 200 Riverview students within their district, less than half of the more than 500 who applied. Mehlville maintains they cannot take more students without seriously jeopardizing educational quality.
The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) issued recommendations that receiving districts establish ceilings on class sizes and begin turning away students once the ceilings are met. Mehlville contends they have followed this process to the best of their ability, and in fact established relatively conservative class size figures a few weeks ago, before the transfer application deadline.
Mehlville Superintendent Eric Knost told The Missouri Times in an interview last week that the law was “unclear” about whether a school is required to accept any and every transfer request they get, and on what, if any, basis they can turn them away.
DESE guidelines also call for a lottery-type system, which Mehlville used, rather than a first come, first serve system in reviewing and accepting transfer applications. However, DESE’s authority to enforce any of these measures is minimal.
Sarah Potter, a DESE spokesperson, said DESE’s role in terms of the transfer of students was to provide “guidance,” but that none of the recommendations listed on the Department website were official or binding.
Serving as an overseeing organization coordinating the process is Cooperating School Districts (CSD).
At the crux of the debate is the Outstanding Schools Act and RsMO 167.131, the statute dealing with transfers. The section primarily lays out the financial obligations of failed districts, and has only one sentence directly dealing with receiving districts and students. The final line of the section reads:
“Subject to the limitations of this section, each pupil shall be free to attend the public school of his or her choice.”
The Children’s Education Alliance of Missouri, a reform organization largely favoring “school choice” that heavily backs vouchers is facilitating the lawsuit on behalf of three Riverview Gardens parents now expected to come on Thursday, and contends that Mehlville has the room to accept all Riverview students, and refusing to do so is a violation of the Outstanding Schools Act.
“Our position is a little more nuanced,” said Katie Casas, State Director of CEAM. “We know that the DESE guidelines [regarding class size] don’t comply with the law. But we also understand schools need some leeway to turn kids away when they truly are full. In our mind, receiving districts need to make every effort to fill their classrooms according to DESE guidelines to be in compliance with the law. We don’t believe Mehlville has done that.”
Casas and CEAM contend that Mehlville’s loss of nearly 900 students from their overall enrollment in the last decade indicate more space is available for Riverview students. Mehlville claims that the enrollment numbers of a decade ago were a reflection of an overcrowded and struggling district, and that the current educational quality could not be maintained by resuming previous class size levels.
Mehlville has given no indication they plan to absorb the remaining 300 students and it is raising questions about whether other receiving districts will be party to similar legal action if they turn students away.
The Eastern Missouri office of the American Civil Liberties Union issued warnings to some receiving superintendents earlier this week warning against the legal ramifications of turning away students, and the NAACP has also expressed an interest in taking legal action. As of mid-day Wednesday, Kirkwood Schools had more than 200 applications through CSD, but had declared an available 176 slots, which they are continuing to fill.
Casas said Mehlville had been on their radar screen much longer, as the previous enrollment numbers and Mehlville’s declared intentions to accept a limited number of students triggered CEAM to begin formulating an investigation and preparing to take legal action. Kirkwood may not be subject to the same scrutiny.
DESE, Kansas City and Saint Louis Public Schools
In a letter to the General Assembly penned two days ago Commissioner of Education Chris Nicastro said DESE efforts to implement new training and processes in Normandy and Riverview were met with limited acceptance from staff. In her letter, Nicastro calls on the General Assembly to begin a “serious statewide conversation about the issue of failing schools and districts.”
Nicastro in part is alluding to the looming accreditation of St. Louis Public Schools and the Kansas City Missouri School District. Newer, stricter evaluation standards set to begin this year could send St. Louis Public Schools back into provisional accreditation, one step closer to transfers.
Currently, KCMSD is unaccredited. However the district contends that a current challenge to the July court ruling, which upheld the Outstanding Schools Act, applies directly to them, and therefore they do not consider themselves required to begin the transfer process until the separate case matter is resolved.
DESE disagrees, but has no power to enforce compliance with the ruling. Their primary concern is that the transfer process in Normandy and Riverview Gardens has been far from easy, and should either of the state’s largest two school districts be forced into the same position, tens of thousands of eligible students could represent a massive burden on surrounding districts forced to take in the wave of new kids. And as Normandy, Riverview and the receiving districts struggle to navigate the process, the potential inclusion of two massive districts has DESE more than a little worried.
“[Kansas City] is a huge concern for us,” Potter said, “Right now the transfer process is still very new and tricky, and [Kansas City] is a massive district, so imagining what that process could look like for them is a little scary.”