Missouri Supreme Court to consider school transfer case on Wednesday

Monday, February 13, 2012 | 8:45 p.m. CST

KANSAS CITY — A lawsuit filed by a family seeking to transfer their teen daughter from the struggling St. Louis School District to the better-performing suburban Webster Groves School District goes before the Missouri Supreme Court on Wednesday.

Filed on behalf of Jordan Danielle King-Willmann, the suit is one of at least four stemming from a state law requiring unaccredited districts to pay tuition and transportation to send students living within their boundaries to accredited schools in the same or an adjoining county. Accredited districts surrounding unaccredited school systems in St. Louis and Kansas City have so far been keeping out students seeking to use the law to transfer while the litigation continues and the legislature debates changes to the law.

The Webster Groves suit was filed in August 2010, one month after the Missouri Supreme Court partially sided with a group of families living in the St. Louis School District and paying to send their children to the suburban Clayton School District. After the St. Louis district lost its accreditation in 2007, the families asked the Clayton district to forward their tuition bills to the unaccredited district and sued when the request was denied.

In ruling in June that King-Willmann should be admitted into Webster Groves High School, St. Louis County Circuit Judge Barbara Wallace cited the judges' ruling in the Clayton case that students living in unaccredited districts are owed free transfers and that accredited schools must take the students. The Supreme Court, however, said the parents weren't owed reimbursement for the tuition they'd already paid because they had signed tuition agreements. The Clayton case was sent back to St. Louis County Circuit Court, where a trial is scheduled for March to discuss several issues, including a claim by the accredited schools that it's impossible to comply.

Wallace also ruled in the King-Willmann case that Webster Groves didn't successfully make its case that being forced to accept the teen violates the Hancock Amendment to the Missouri Constitution, which bars unfunded mandates.

Despite the ruling, the Webster Groves district refused to admit King-Willmann and appealed on several grounds, including that the St. Louis School District should be a party in the lawsuit because it would be required to pay tuition and transportation costs. The district also argued it is impossible to comply, saying that "a large influx of City School District students could, virtually overnight, require the School District to find additional classroom space, increase class size, require hiring of new teachers and other staff, and incur numerous other expenses and costs associated with increased enrollment."

Douglas Copeland, attorney for Webster Groves schools, said it was important to resolve the issues because many students want to transfer. A study conducted as part of the Clayton litigation found that nearly one-third of St. Louis students would change schools if they were allowed to take advantage of the transfer law.

"That's our concern — not that you have to take one child but that you have to take them all," Copeland said. "And there are quite a few who want to come so that's why we want to pursue it."

King-Willmann did not file a responsive brief, but the state will argue the case in place of the student. In pretrial briefs, the state contends that the district can't use the Hancock Amendment as a defense because that ability is limited to taxpayers. The state also noted in its brief that the case addresses the admission one student — not many — and said that it suspects the costs of accepting King-Willmann would be "minimal."

Also in the St. Louis area, the transfer law prompted members of the St. Louis Fire Department to file a lawsuit last month after they were denied admission to three suburban school districts. The plaintiff firefighters are required to live in the city for their jobs and have been paying to send their children to parochial schools.

On the other side of the state, five suburban districts have sued the recently unaccredited Kansas City School District over its plan for handling transfers of students to accredited school systems. One issue is that the Kansas City district wants to pay tuition in monthly installments, while the surrounding districts want the money up front.

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