Chain reaction to state school transfer law

tporter@lsjournal.comDecember 17, 2013 

  • 2014-2015

    The academic school year students from unaccredited Kansas City Public Schools may begin transferring to accredited schools in neighboring or adjoining counties.

The chain reaction from a recent Missouri Supreme Court ruling of a battle-tested school transfer law has school officials in Lee’s Summit seeking other options for a more solvable financial situation.

In a news release days after the state supreme court upheld a state statute that permits students residing in unaccredited school districts to transfer to accredited schools in the same or adjoining county, Lee’s Summit R-7 Superintendent David McGehee said the district will do whatever it needs to do to comply with state law.

However, McGehee stated, the district is also mindful of the students and taxpayers of the district and the cost that they may incur if a mass transfer of students from unaccredited Kansas City Public Schools into R-7 schools occur beginning next school year.

“While we are disappointed by the court’s decision and continue to believe that this state law amounts to an unfunded mandate for our taxpayers, our school district will make all reasonable efforts to comply with the court’s ruling,” McGehee said. “At the same time, we also have an obligation to our resident students and our taxpayers.”

The court’s decision Dec. 10 was in response to a lawsuit filed by neighboring schools districts in Lee’s Summit, Blue Springs, Independence, North Kansas City and Raytown, who appealed to the Missouri Supreme Court after Jackson County Circuit Judge W. Brent Powell ruled last August that the transfer law is an unfunded mandate that violated the Hancock Amendment of the Missouri Constitution for three of the five school districts that had sued the state to block the law.

The Hancock Amendment prohibits the state from imposing new mandates upon political subdivisions – including school districts – without full state financing. A violation of the amendment had been at the forefront of the suburban KC school districts’ challenge.

Powell ruled in favor of taxpayers representing the Lee’s Summit, Independence and North Kansas City school districts, agreeing that financial officers demonstrated the law would bring unfunded costs and ruled against school districts in Blue Springs and Raytown.

However, Dec. 10’s ruling from the Missouri Supreme Court overturned the judgments in favor of Lee’s Summit, Independence and North Kansas City, and affirmed the judgments against Blue Springs and Raytown.

The state’s high court ruled that the statute does not impose any new activities on the Kansas City area school districts because the districts were always required to educate students.

McGehee is working with superintendents from throughout Missouri to develop a plan that serves as an alternative to transferring students from unaccredited districts to accredited districts. Known as the New Path to Excellence, the plan has been presented to state legislators, superintendents from across the state and Missouri Board of Education members.

“The New Path to Excellence ensures that every student in Missouri has the opportunity to attend an accredited school,” McGehee said, adding the plan includes early interventions, accreditation granted by individual schools instead of to a district as a whole and the opportunity for students to transfer to accredited schools within their own district.

According to the R-7 district, the New Path to Excellence has been endorsed by the Missouri Association of School Administrators as a proposal that provides long-term support for students, schools and communities – as opposed to the measures currently required under the student transfer statute.

Kansas City Public Schools lost its accreditation in January 2012. According to state law, students from the Kansas City district will be eligible to transfer to any accredited school district in Jackson County and adjoining counties during the 2014-15 school year.

The statute requires that the unaccredited district pay tuition to the accredited district that receives its students as well as all transportation costs associated with the transfer. The unaccredited district may designate the district or districts for transportation funding.

Unaccredited districts involved in the transfer process in the St. Louis area have struggled to meet the financial obligations after the state Supreme Court ruled this past summer that the transfer law was constitutional.

More than 2,600 students transferred out of the Normandy and Riverview Gardens school districts after they were stripped of their accreditation. According to media reports, Normandy officials have said they’ll need an additional $6.8 million in state funds to avoid going bankrupt before the end of the current school year and Riverview Gardens could run out of money next year.

Reports also indicate that the cost to cover transfers in the Kansas City area could run as high as $120 million of the KCPS’s annual $238 million budget.

“Transferring some students out of an unaccredited district will not lead to improvement but rather rips away at any opportunity for the unaccredited district to improve,” McGehee said. “As we’ve seen this year in the St. Louis area, the current transfer requirements are literally bankrupting school districts and negatively impacting the communities served by the unaccredited districts.”

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