Suburban schools could run unaccredited KC schools

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — Lawmakers are drafting legislation that would allow suburban districts to operate Kansas City schools that are about to lose their state accreditation after years of dismal test scores and administrative churn.

The legislation also would create a central clearinghouse for families from the unaccredited St. Louis and Riverview Gardens districts to find spots for their children in charter, suburban or even private schools, said St. Louis-area Republican Sen. Jane Cunningham.

The proposals are an attempt to deal with changes brought on by a Missouri Supreme Court ruling last year that said students living in unaccredited districts are owed the right to free transfers and that accredited schools must take the students. The court sent the case back to St. Louis County Circuit Court, where a trial has been pushed back to March to discuss issues including a claim by the accredited schools that it's impossible to comply.

Transfer backers say all students deserve a quality education. But the accredited districts argue unfettered transfers would overwhelm their schools, and they've been calling on the Legislature to make changes.

"Our purpose has always been, No. 1, to ensure that the children who are eligible to transfer, that we don't take any of those rights away, that every child who is eligible to transfer to an accredited school under the statute retains that right," said Cunningham, who didn't know when legislative staff would finish drafting the proposal for the upcoming session. "That was No. 1, that they get to an accredited school, and No. 2 was that we find ways if we can to relieve any of the receiving districts who feel that they may not be able to take as many children as may apply."

The Kansas City School District's loss of accreditation takes effect Jan. 1. State law gives the district until June 30, 2014, to improve and regain accreditation before it could face a state takeover.

St. Louis Public Schools and the nearby Riverview Gardens School District lost their accreditation in 2007, and special boards are running both districts. The Kansas City and Riverview Gardens districts didn't immediately respond to calls seeking comment. St. Louis Public Schools spokesman Patrick Wallace said he couldn't comment on the proposal because he didn't know the details.

Superintendents in the school systems immediately surrounding the Kansas City School District, including Independence and Center, have been meeting to discuss the possibility of operating Kansas City schools. They are working out details, such as ensuring the test scores of the unaccredited schools would be kept separate from the accredited schools. Other questions include whether teachers in the unaccredited schools would be required to reapply for their jobs.

"I think it really evolved because the superintendents of the districts adjoining Kansas City were discussing what were the solutions and the options and how can we be part of the solution instead of an obstacle in the process," Independence Superintendent Jim Hinson said. "And so as that discussion really continued, the question was asked, 'Is this part of our responsibility to enter into a management contract to operate schools that are currently within the boundaries of the Kansas City School District?'"

Independence already has experience taking over Kansas City schools. After getting approval from voters, seven Kansas City schools switched to the neighboring Independence district in 2008.

Hinson said that under the plan the Kansas City district "would cease to function as it currently exists today."

"I think our discussion at this point is they should really go ahead and turn over the operations of the schools under this model, all of the schools to the adjoining school districts, and you wouldn't leave any area isolated," he said. "The state board would have to decide what the length of duration of this management contract. This isn't a permanent solution, but it is to give really those kids an educational opportunity."

Center Superintendent Bob Bartman said the district is investigating the idea but that its ultimate support would depend upon the bill's wording.

"From my perspective, we do want to be part of the solution," said Bartman, a former Missouri education commissioner.

The idea of involving the suburban districts in running Kansas City schools was winning praise from education officials and lawmakers.

"I believe that idea makes sense," said Roger Kurtz, executive director of the Missouri Association of School Administrators. "Here's my logic: If you feel they would get a better education in the school districts that surround them, don't you think it makes sense for those administrators and teachers to be part of the solution."

Sen. David Pearce, R-Warrensburg, chairman of the Senate Education Committee, has proposed separate legislation that would allow suburban districts to turn away transfer-seekers if they would overload classrooms. But he said the new idea is one he and others would support.

"I think it has a lot of promise and potential," he said.

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