Missouri lawmakers, residents discuss future of unaccredited schools

Sunday, November 6, 2011 | 7:45 p.m. CST

KANSAS CITY — Lawmakers have been meeting with people around the state about what should happen in Missouri's unaccredited school districts and consider the legislation they will push in the 2012 session.

Kansas City Public Schools' loss of accreditation takes effect Jan. 1. St. Louis Public Schools and the nearby Riverview Gardens School District lost their accreditation in 2007.

Some issues, including a contested law that says unaccredited districts must pick up the tab for tuition and transportation to send students living within their boundaries to accredited schools in the same or an adjoining county, affect all three districts. The issue, which is before the courts, has the potential to allow droves of students to leave the unaccredited schools.

Two groups, the Cooperating School Districts of Greater Kansas City and the Cooperating School Districts of Greater St. Louis, consider the transfer issue their top priority this session.

They want suburban districts to be able to reject transfer students if they will overload classrooms. The suburban schools also want to limit transfers to students who've attended unaccredited schools for at least a year, with the exception of kindergartners. They said if students from private and parochial schools seek transfers, the state will suddenly be responsible for educating more students, which will strain the state's limited resources.

Lawmakers considered making changes last session but failed to pass anything.

"Up until Kansas City was declared unaccredited, people just kind of wrote this off as a St. Louis problem and said 'The heck with it,'" said Don Senti, executive director of the Cooperating School Districts of Greater St. Louis. "Now this year maybe with Kansas City on board and people paying more attention, maybe it will pass."

Sen. David Pearce, R-Warrensburg, chairman of the Senate Education Committee, said the two groups will "carry a tremendous amount of influence."

Besides legislation aimed at addressing the transfer issue, specific attention also will be paid to Kansas City. State law gives the district more than two years to regain accreditation before it could face a state takeover, but some people don't want to wait that long before making big changes.

"I think there are lots of options that are available," Pearce said. "I think when you look at the fact that it's not working, that the Kansas City School District is not working. It is unaccredited, so what are some options out there? I do think that looking at different governance models, at maybe different sizes, breaking up the district, would certainly be options. I think many, many things are going to be on the table."

He said Kansas City is the only district in the state with nine school board members and that the board members represent different geographic parts of the district. He said the rest of the accredited districts have seven members.

"If it worked, I'd say that was great," Pearce said. "But it doesn't work, and so we need to first reduce the number of school board members. We need to reduce the reliance on where they are from and instead have people elected at large."

He said another possibility is to make it easier for neighboring districts to annex portions of the Kansas City district. Pearce said after getting approval from voters, seven Kansas City schools switched to the neighboring Independence district in 2008. Many in the Kansas City suburbs of Independence and Sugar Creek argued in favor of the transfer because they said it would improve their property values and the quality of education for students at those schools.

Pearce said another possibility is to break the geographically large district into five or six smaller districts.

"When you get so large that you don't have that community sense and you don't have the local buy-in which you would have in small school districts," Pearce said. "So the concept of possibly breaking it up is probably not a bad idea."

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