KC families seek to transfer to suburban schools

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — Now that the Kansas City School District is losing its stamp of approval from the state, dozens of families are seeking to take advantage of a contested Missouri law that requires unaccredited districts to pick up the tab to send students to accredited schools.

Fifteen parents showed up Tuesday at schools in the neighboring Independence School District seeking to enroll their children just minutes after the state Board of Education voted to strip Kansas City of its partial accreditation. The Independence district received an additional 50 to 100 calls Wednesday from families seeking transfers.

Meanwhile, the Center School District received about 20 calls by midday Wednesday. The North Kansas City School District talked to five parents.

Andre Riley, spokesman for the Kansas City district, said school officials are operating a phone bank and organizing town hall meetings to answer questions, including ones from parents who want to leave and wonder what they have to do.

“I think what all the suburban districts are thinking is we are just worrying about kids and certainly worried about Kansas City, Mo., kids,” said Kelly Wachel, a spokeswoman for the Center School District. “We want them to be getting the best education they can. But at the same time we are worried about how to assimilate new kids into our district. It’s a big situation to be thinking about right now for the greater Kansas City metro as a whole.”

Education officials are awaiting the outcome of a court case filed in St. Louis as they plan for what will happen when the Kansas City district’s loss of accreditation takes effect Jan. 1.

The lawsuit was filed over the requirement that accredited districts educate students from unaccredited districts. Jane Turner was among parents paying to transfer their children to the suburban Clayton district when the St. Louis district lost its accreditation in 2007 after years of low test scores and other problems.

When Clayton refused to send Turner’s tuition bill to St. Louis, she and three other parents sued.

The Missouri Supreme Court agreed last summer that students living in unaccredited districts are owed free transfers and accredited schools must take the students. The court sent the case back to St. Louis County Circuit Court where a trial is scheduled for Jan. 23 to discuss issues including a claim by the accredited schools that it’s impossible to comply with the law.

Suburban St. Louis schools have been refusing to accept unpaid transfers of students from unaccredited districts while the litigation continues.

“We are just trying to figure out how it plays out,” said Riley, the spokesman for the Kansas City district. “Once we know what is actually going to happen or what is decided in that case, that impacts us and everybody else.”

Independence Superintendent Jim Hinson said his district is already building two additional elementary schools because there isn’t enough space. He said there may be room for children transferring from the Kansas City district in some grades and schools, but that Independence will not build schools or add trailers to accommodate those students.

If forced to take students that can’t fit into the district, Hinson said “that’s absolutely something that could be litigated.”

“Certainly we are going to make every effort to comply with the decision of the Supreme Court,” said Hinson, who posted a video on YouTube discussing the issue. “However, it cannot have a negative impact on the current Independence school district and the students in our district.”

The Missouri Legislature took up the issue last session with proposals that included excluding students from transferring if they hadn’t previously been attending district schools, addressing fears students from private and parochial schools also would transfer. But the legislation didn’t win passage as school choice proponents sought to use it to extend state-supported education to private and parochial schools, said Roger Kurtz, executive director of the Missouri Association of School Administrators.

Sen. David Pearce, R-Warrensburg, chairman of the Senate Education Committee, said the issue will likely come up again in the next regular session, which convenes in mid-January.

“It has huge, huge implications for the state of Missouri,” Pearce said. “I am confident we will get our people who care about public education and care about the kids and we’ll get some solutions.”

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