Published Online: November 28, 2011

Kansas City-Area Districts Brace for Influx

The struggling Kansas City, Mo., district, plagued by low test scores and leadership turmoil, is slated to lose state accreditation at the beginning of the year.

But the ripple effects of that action may spread far beyond the boundaries of the 17,400-student system.

Missouri currently has a law that requires districts that surround an unaccredited school system to enroll those students if the parents decide they want to change their children’s schools.

It’s still unclear if Kansas City students will be allowed to switch schools as soon as January. That issue is tied up in litigation that will not be resolved any time soon. In addition, the state education board meets Dec. 1 and could take action that would affect transfers.

The Kansas City school system would also be responsible for paying tuition for departing students. In one previous occasion where an unaccredited district sent away its students, the district fell behind on tuition payments and was eventually merged into a neighboring school system.

The uncertainty hasn’t stopped parents from calling nearby districts, like the 2,500-student Center District whose northern border abuts the Kansas City school district line. The parents want to know how to enroll their students.

“To date, we’ve had 40 inquiries. We expect that number will ramp up as we get closer to January 1,” said Robert Bartman, the superintendent of the district.

The prospect of absorbing Kansas City students is a concern for him and other districts that are close to Kansas City.

“Is it the right thing to do to uproot kids in the middle of the year and send them to another school? What does that do to the school who is receiving them? What does that do to the district where the kids are leaving?” Mr. Bartman said. “There are some educational reasons to figure out a better way to organize the exit of whoever decides to exit.”

Leadership Shakeup

In the meantime, Kansas City is trying to regain its footing after the abrupt departure of former superintendent John Covington, who after two years left the school system in August to manage an educational authority to oversee low-performing schools in Michigan. Earlier this month, three Kansas City district chiefs who oversaw finance, academics and curriculum, announced that they, too, were moving with Mr. Covington to the new Michigan district, which will ramp up to be operational for the 2012-13 school year.

Mr. Covington had garnered support for his aggressive turnaround efforts, which included closing nearly half of the district’s schools in a bid for financial stability. R. Stephen Green, the interim superintendent in Kansas City, said in an interview that job shifts and resignations are to be expected when a school leader leaves.

“What I have done is called upon the staff to be resilient. That would be the same thing we would expect our students to do if they’ve had a setback in life,” Mr. Green said.

As for how the district may handle a student exodus, Mr. Green said the district doesn’t have control over what may be decided by the state board of education and the courts. “We’ve been focused on making sure that student achievement in the areas where we need to target our emphasis is the priority,” he said.

Transfer Law Controversy

Missouri’s school transfer statute is a long-running concern for many educators in the Kansas City area. The law was passed as a part of the 1993 Outstanding Schools Act in Missouri, which also created a statewide assessment system and a curriculum framework for state schools.

The law states that an unaccredited school district must pay tuition and provide transportation for each resident student who leaves for an accredited district in the county or an adjoining county. Though other school districts allow student transfers between districts, Missouri’s law appears to be unique, said Jennifer Dounay Zinth, a senior policy analyst with the Denver-based Education Commission of the States.

In 2007, when the 23,600-student St. Louis district lost its state accreditation, a group of parents living in St. Louis who had been paying tuition for their students to attend the neighboring Clayton district said that St. Louis should take over tuition payments. Clayton, a district of 2,500 students in the St. Louis metropolitan area, declined to seek money from St. Louis.

The case, Turner v. School District of Clayton, ended up before the Missouri Supreme Court. In July 2010, a 4-to-3 majority held that school districts in the state must accept students from unaccredited districts, and those unaccredited districts must pay the tuition.

However, the Supreme Court’s decision was not the final word. It sent the case back to circuit court, and Clayton and St. Louis are now making the argument that the law is impossible to follow because it could financially ruin districts with tuition obligations and inundate others with students they had not expected. They are also arguing the law is an unconstitutional, unfunded mandate from state government. The state Supreme Court decision, opponents of the ruling said, was the first time they had ever been told that the transfer law was mandatory.

‘Imagined Horribles’

Elkin L. Kistner, one of the lawyers who represented the St. Louis parents who prevailed before the state’s high court, said that he’s frustrated that his clients are stuck while the case grinds on. Currently, the case will be heard sometime this spring, and the expectation is that it will once again reach the Missouri Supreme Court.

“Everyone’s afraid that the sky will fall in, and these imagined horribles will eventually occur,” he said. But “you’ve got a statute that says X, and X is not being enforced by the courts.”

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From his perspective, the case is not complicated, Mr. Kistner said. Plus, he added, “the legislature has had all kinds of opportunity and pressure to amend the statute, but it hasn’t done so. The judiciary is obligated to enforce the law as written, not engage in judicial activism by frustrating the legislative intent.”

Clayton schools and other education groups had lobbied lawmakers for a so-called “Turner fix” in the last legislative session, but no bill passed.

The law as currently interpreted is untenable, said Chris Tennill, the chief communications officer for Clayton schools. “It’s not possible for a school district to absorb an unlimited number of kids,” he said. “We’re a small, landlocked, completely developed district. We’re not planning for growth.”

Clayton schools also believe they were burned when the district accepted students from the nearby Wellston district, a 500-student system in the St. Louis area plagued by academic problems that lost its accreditation in 2003. Mr. Tennill said Clayton enrolled about 17 students from Wellston in 2003. Other districts took additional Wellston students. The tuition payments to other districts “was such a huge financial drain on Wellston, it didn’t take long for that district to just start hemorrhaging money,” he said. Clayton, as one example, charges about $10,000 a year for elementary students and $15,600 for high school students.

Unanswered Questions

Wellston fell behind on its payments, though the districts that accepted its students eventually recovered their tuition money in 2010, when the Wellston district was merged into a neighboring district.

The tiny 35-student district of Wyaconda, in northeast Missouri, lost its accreditation in 2006 and paid tuition for 13 high school students to attend schools in nearby jurisdictions. In 2008 the district “lapsed,” which allowed the state department of education to reassign its students to other school districts. It was the first district in Missouri to lapse as a result of poor academic performance, though other districts have had to close because of financial reasons.

Gayden Carruth, the executive director of a coalition called Cooperating School Districts of Greater Kansas City, said the 29 districts in the coalition are well aware of those that have struggled with the transfer law, both to accept arriving students and to pay for departing students. Accepting districts don’t know if they’re allowed to decide where to assign students or how to count test scores of newly arrived students. Her districts also wonder if they’ll get an influx of students who were in private or charter schools before Kansas City’s change in accreditation status. The state law does not require that transferring students be enrolled in the unaccredited school district, only that they reside within its boundaries.

“We are wanting there to be some reasonable parameters,” she said. “What’s the impact? We have no idea.”

Chris L. Nicastro, the Missouri commissioner of education, said she is encouraging Kansas City and its surrounding districts to work together on a common set of guidelines to manage any transfers requested after Kansas City becomes unaccredited . The state education department cannot set ground rules for how transfers should be handled without authority from state lawmakers, she said. Lawmakers, in turn, may choose not to act until the legal case involving St. Louis is settled. “Our ability to intervene is limited,” she said.

Left in limbo, however, are students in low-performing Kansas City schools. “Personally my hope is that [Kansas City] can figure out a way to heal themselves,” said Mr. Bartman, the superintendent of the district that borders Kansas City. “Unfortunately, their record over the past 40 years has not been good.”

Vol. 31, Issue 13

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