KANSAS CITY — A judge ruled Thursday that a Missouri statute allowing students to transfer out of floundering districts would violate a ban on unfunded state mandates because it financially harms three accredited districts surrounding unaccredited Kansas City Public Schools.
At issue is 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. The law has prompted multiple lawsuits. So far, students in unaccredited school systems aren't being allowed to use the law to transfer while the litigation continues.
In siding with taxpayers in the Independence, North Kansas City and Lee's Summit districts, Jackson County Judge Brent Powell wrote that the transfer law violates the Hancock Amendment in the Missouri Constitution, which includes the ban on unfunded mandates. Powell also found there would be no Hancock violation in the Blue Springs and Raytown districts.
A plaintiff-funded survey of Kansas City parents projected that 1,690 students would transfer to Blue Springs, 741 to Raytown, 1,002 to Independence, 2,035 to North Kansas City and 2,291 to Lee's Summit.
Powell found that the amount collected for educating the transfer students would fall short of the cost of educating those students by $5.2 million in Lee's Summit, $2.9 million in North Kansas City and $1.7 million in Independence. Powell found the Blue Springs and Raytown districts would collect enough money from the Kansas City district to educate the transfer students.
The attorney for the plaintiff districts, Duane Martin, didn't immediately return a phone call seeking comment. The Independence School District praised the ruling in a written statement.
"The Independence School District strongly believes that each child in our metropolitan area deserves a quality education, but that the education of students outside of our district cannot be our taxpayers' burden," Independence Superintendent Jim Hinson said in the statement. "For that reason, we are pleased with the Judge's decision."
The Kansas City district said transfers could be requested to Blue Springs and Raytown, but "even this portion of the ruling is likely to be challenged."
"The judge's ruling today protects the educational resources of more than 16,000 students and avoids a tragedy," said Kansas City Public Schools Superintendent R. Stephen Green in the district's written statement. "Our students have a right to high-quality resources, and this ruling prevents these resources from leaving KCPS, its students, and its teachers. We look forward to continuing our march toward reaccreditation."
The state, which defended the transfer law in court, argued that the accredited districts exaggerated the costs of educating transfer students. But Powell wrote that the accredited districts' cost projects were "very credible and reliable" and "may actually underestimate the increased costs."
Powell also noted in his ruling that at some point, the Kansas City district could find itself unable to cover the cost of tuition payments. Should that happen, a Hancock Amendment violation would likely exist "for each and every" accredited school district that educates students using the contested law to transfer, Powell wrote.
The accredited districts also sued over the Kansas City district's policy for accepting transfer students, arguing its plans for covering certain costs are vague and inadequate.
Powell ruled on several of those issues previously. In Thursday's ruling, Powell found nothing wrong with the Kansas City district paying tuition in monthly installments. The accredited districts wanted a year's worth of tuition upfront. The amount the Kansas City district was willing to pay also was a subject of contention. Powell found that the Kansas City district left it up to the state Board of Education to resolve tuition disputes, and he found that didn't violate the law.
Powell acknowledged his ruling "will undoubtedly be appealed."
"Considering the myriad of evidentiary and legal issues involved in this opinion," he wrote, "the Court's ruling could very likely be reversed and/or significantly altered."