The Missouri Supreme Court’s Dec. 10 decision upholds a state statute that permits students residing in unaccredited school districts to transfer to accredited schools in the same county or in an adjoining county. The court’s decision was in response to a lawsuit filed by the Lee’s Summit R-7 School District as well as the Blue Springs, Independence, North Kansas City and Raytown school districts.
Kansas City Public Schools lost its accreditation in January 2012. According to state law and guidance from the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, 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.
Taxpayers from Lee’s Summit R-7 and the other area districts involved in the lawsuit claimed that the state statute (Missouri RSMo § 167.131) is unconstitutional because it causes taxpayers to bear the additional costs of educating a significant number of out-of-district students, which violates the Missouri Constitution’s Hancock Amendment. The Hancock Amendment prohibits the state from imposing new activities on political subdivisions without providing full state funding for costs.
Although the state admitted that it has provided no funding whatsoever to cover the costs associated with student transfers, the Supreme Court did not rule on the issue of whether the state has provided adequate funding. Rather, the court ruled that the statute does not impose any new activities on the Kansas City area school districts because these districts were always required to educate students.
"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," said Dr. David McGehee, Lee’s Summit R-7 superintendent. "At the same time, we also have an obligation to our resident students and our taxpayers."
Dr. McGehee, working with superintendents from throughout Missouri, was recently involved in development of a plan that serves as a feasible and constructive alternative to transferring students from unaccredited districts to accredited districts. Known as the New Path to Excellence, this 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," Dr. McGehee added. "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."
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 punitive and financially unsustainable measures currently required under the student transfer statute.
"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," Dr. 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."
The state 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. St. Louis area unaccredited districts involved in the transfer process on the state’s east side have struggled to meet these financial obligations and while also serving the students who remain in their districts.
Education leaders across Missouri, joined by the Lee’s Summit R-7 Board of Education and administration, are continuing to also urge state legislators to help provide the legal foundation for the New Path to Excellence plan and to clarify and improve the current school transfer law.
The Missouri Supreme Court’s Dec. 10 opinion mirrored an opinion it issued earlier this summer in a similar case brought by Clayton School District (located in the St. Louis metropolitan area). In its decision in the Breitenfeld vs. School District of Clayton case, the Supreme Court held that the transfer statute required nothing new of the Clayton School District in that the district was always required to educate "eligible pupils." In their appeal, the taxpayers of the Lee’s Summit R-7 and other metro area school districts asserted that the statute does present a new mandate because, prior to the passage of the Hancock Amendment in 1980, there was no statutory requirement to admit significant numbers of students who do not meet residency requirements. Despite the unprecedented numbers of out-of-district students that the transfer statute will require the Kansas City metropolitan-area school districts to admit and educate, the court held that the statute imposes no new requirements.
Based partly on guidance issued by the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and any pending legislative changes, the area school districts intend to implement policies and procedures which will allow for state-mandated transfers to occur during the 2014-2015 school year. The area school districts intend to work cooperatively with Kansas City Public Schools in order to ensure consistency.