St. Louis area parents table school transfers suit

Thursday, August 15, 2013 | 8:17 p.m. CDT
From left, Alderwoman Darlene Bell, Jennifer Erby and Moline Acres Mayor Michele DeShay greet students and parents on the first day of school Monday at Meadows Elementary School in Moline Acres. Meadows Elementary is part of the unaccredited Riverview Gardens School District. The women were onsite to thank parents for keeping their children in the district.

ST. LOUIS  — A St. Louis group that pressured two area school systems to accept more transfer students from unaccredited districts no longer plans to seek legal action on behalf of families shut out from their top choices.

The Children's Education Alliance of Missouri said Thursday that the five families mulling a suit against the Mehlville district in St. Louis County have received suitable school assignments. Alliance state director Kate Casas said that fewer than 30 families hoping to transfer from the Riverview Gardens district to either Kirkwood or Mehlville schools were still having problems. Classes in Kirkwood begin Tuesday.

Both districts cited class size limits in turning away students from Riverview Gardens, one of two county school systems whose students can now go elsewhere after the state Supreme Court upheld such moves in a June ruling.

"We have no plans as of right now to pursue legal action against anyone," Casas said.

Just last week, the education group sent a draft petition to Mehlville superintendent Eric Knecht naming three students and their parents as potential plaintiffs, while also citing its "good-faith hope" to avert legal action.

The group said Monday that both Kirkwood and Mehlville officials have since worked to help "identify a solution that is in the best interest of all kids." St. Louis attorney Joshua Schindler, who represents the alliance and the five Riverview Gardens families, said the two districts have been responsive to the continued concerns.

"As long as we're talking and the ball is moving forward, we prefer to keep it out of the courts," he said Thursday.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Eastern Missouri, which sent its own foreboding letters to the Mehlville and Kirkwood districts, continues to work with Riverview Gardens' parents. Executive director Jeffrey Mittman said legal action is still a possibility.

"We are working with school districts to try to place as many students as possible," he said in a written statement. "Once our negotiation efforts are exhausted, we'll determine if litigation is necessary."

More than 2,600 students applied to transfer out of Normandy and Riverview Gardens schools after the early summer Supreme Court ruling sent parents, principals and school superintendents scrambling. Most chose the districts where free transportation will be provided, though at the expense of the unaccredited districts: Francis Howell for Normandy students, and Mehlville and Kirkwood for students from Riverview Gardens

On Thursday, about 250 students from the Riverview Gardens district boarded buses for the first day of classes at Mehlville, a drive of more than 20 miles. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported that the new students received a warm greeting at an Oakville High School assembly.

Senior Veronica Lewis, a St. Louis resident who has attended Mehlville schools since sixth grade as part of a voluntary desegregation program, said the new students will be embraced.

"A lot of them are scared that we're going to hate them or judge them," she said. "That's not the case."

The school district created a 2-minute YouTube video in which band members, school leaders, teachers and the principal greeted "all our friends at Riverview Gardens. We've got just one thing to say: welcome."

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