Missouri high court considers school transfer case

The Missouri Supreme Court considered Wednesday whether a suburban school district should be required to enroll a student who lives in St. Louis, which has one the state’s three unaccredited school systems.

Arguments before the state high court are related to a Missouri law that allows students who live in unaccredited school districts to transfer to a nearby accredited district while requiring the unaccredited district to pay tuition and transportation costs. Public schools in Kansas City, St. Louis and Riverview Gardens in St. Louis County are unaccredited.

At least four lawsuits stem from that law, and state legislators are considering how to implement or revise the existing school transfer law.

The most recent case began when the family of a St. Louis teen sought a court order in August 2010 to require the Webster Groves School District enroll Jordan Danielle King-Willmann in its high school. A judge granted that request last June, but the school district appealed and she has not been enrolled.

No arguments were submitted to the Missouri Supreme Court on King-Willmann’s behalf.

The Webster Groves School District contended there should have been hearings before the trial court to settle several factual disputes and to consider the district’s legal defenses. The Webster Groves district said the St. Louis School District should have been involved in the litigation because it would need to pay the teen’s tuition and transportation.

Doug Copeland, an attorney for the Webster Groves School District, said allowing transfers from unaccredited districts could create problems.

“There are 60,000 other students right behind that student, and we could not possibly educate those students,” Copeland said. He estimated more than 100 families have made similar requests.

Several judges on the seven-member state Supreme Court on Wednesday questioned what happens to students living in unaccredited school districts. Judge William Ray Price said difficulties created by the transfer law seemed like a problem that needs to be addressed by lawmakers.

“This one child is saying there’s no accredited school district here for me. We have an obligation to them. The statute says if we can’t fulfill that obligation in St. Louis, the child can choose where they want to go,” Price said. “That’s not something we get to monkey with. That’s the Legislature that did that.”

The Webster Groves district also said the transfer law violates the Hancock Amendment in the Missouri Constitution, which includes a ban on unfunded state mandates for local governments.

The Missouri attorney general’s office argued in court Wednesday the protections in the Hancock Amendment are designed for Missouri taxpayers not for school districts, cities, counties and other governmental bodies.

“It is not the role of the Hancock Amendment to protect the government — even from the state government,” assistant attorney general Robert Presson said.

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