Missouri court hears challenge to school transfer law

Tuesday, March 5, 2013 | 2:32 p.m. CST; updated 8:20 p.m. CST, Tuesday, March 5, 2013

JEFFERSON CITY — The Missouri Supreme Court on Tuesday was considering whether failing school districts must pay for students who choose to attend neighboring schools in a case that involves just two St. Louis children but that could have implications for thousands of families.

Judges on the state's highest court repeatedly set aside their own time limits to question attorneys for the state, parents and school districts about the constitutionality of a 1993 law requiring unaccredited districts to pay the tuition and transportation costs for residents wanting to attend school in a nearby district.

The case is an appeal of a May decision by a St. Louis County judge who declared that the school-transfer law imposed an unfunded mandate on school districts that violates the Missouri Constitution and would be financially impossible to follow.

Any decision by the Supreme Court would directly apply only to Gina Breitenfeld, who sued in 2007 to force the then-unaccredited St. Louis Public School District to pay for her two children to attend Clayton schools. But the case could have implications for families living in the unaccredited districts of Kansas City, Normandy, Riverview Gardens and any other school system that loses state accreditation in the future.

Attorneys for the St. Louis and Clayton schools cited estimates Tuesday that as many as 15,000 students — a little more than half the total enrollment — could have left the St. Louis school district under the transfer law after the school system lost its accreditation in 2007. But that mass exodus never occurred, because school officials cited the uncertainty of pending litigation as a reason not to start redistributing money and students.

St. Louis County Circuit Judge David Lee Vincent III ruled in May that the transfer law cannot be enforced. In addition to citing unfunded mandate concerns, Vincent said it would have been impossible for school districts to comply with the 1993 law because of the budget consequences.

St. Louis schools regained provisional accreditation in October. As a result, "there is no potential for the doomsday scenario on which the circuit court relied," said State Solicitor Jim Layton, who defended the state law.

Although the state budget contains no specific line item for unaccredited schools to pay for student transfers, Layton argued that does not make the law an unfunded mandate. He said schools have received millions of additional dollars from the state, which they could put toward that purpose.

The trial judge ordered Breitenfeld to pay $49,133 to Clayton schools to cover the cost of educating her children — an amount her attorney, Elkin Kistner, decried Tuesday as "blatantly unfair."

Chief Justice Richard Teitelman suggested the money amounted to a blip in the budget for either district and could easily be waived by Clayton or paid by St. Louis schools.

But Clayton schools attorney Mark Bremer said the amount equaled the salary of a St. Louis teacher who might have to be laid off if the money were paid to the Clayton district.

"This money matters," Bremer said.

St. Louis schools attorney Rick Walsh Jr. urged the Supreme Court to decide the constitutionality of the 1993 law, even though the district is no longer unaccredited. Walsh noted that the district could again lose its accreditation, which would re-open the potential for thousands of student transfers.

The case has bounced around in court for years. Vincent first sided with the school districts in 2008, but the state Supreme Court overturned the decision two years later and ordered further proceedings, leading to Vincent's ruling for the schools last year.

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