ACLU questions decision to block KC transfers

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — The American Civil Liberties Union said Friday that suburban school districts should freely accept students trying to transfer out of the unaccredited Kansas City School District and threatened to intervene in pending litigation aimed at blocking the transfers until funding issues are resolved.

A hotly contested Missouri law allows students from unaccredited districts to transfer to accredited schools within the same or neighboring county. Accredited districts must accept the transfers, with the unaccredited district required to pay tuition and transportation for students who transfer.

But a group of five suburban districts filed a lawsuit against the Kansas City district to temporarily block the transfers. They argue the Kansas City district should pay for more of the costs and make those payments upfront, instead of in monthly installments as Kansas City has proposed.

A Jackson County judge denied the suburban districts' request for a temporary restraining order last week. Another hearing is scheduled for next week, though the districts insist they won't accept any students transferring from Kansas City unless their individual policies governing out-of-district transfers are followed. They argue that paying tuition in monthly installments runs afoul of those policies.

The ACLU questioned that decision in a letter Friday to the suburban districts' attorney, Duane Martin, and urged those schools to accept all transfer requests without waiting on the courts.

"Those cost issues do not appear to impact the right of students to make an immediate transfer, and certainly nothing in the law gives the receiving districts an express right to reject the transfer requests while the districts involved sort out the funding disputes," said Doug Bonney, legal director of the ACLU of Kansas and Western Missouri.

"If your client districts persist in delaying enrollments of transferring students, the ACLU will consider representing such students in a motion to intervene in the pending lawsuit," Bonney said.

Martin said the legal petition filed on behalf of the five accredited districts does not seek to deny any student's right to transfer.

"Each district believes that every student has a right to a quality education," Martin said in a written statement. "The attorney for KCPS admitted in court that the current KCPS policy does not comply with state law. The enrollment of transfer students can occur when the sending district complies with state statute and local school board policies."

Allan V. Hallquist, an attorney for the Kansas City district, said the district didn't disagree with the ACLU's position.

"To my knowledge none of the accredited districts have admitted any students and have not submitted any requests for tuition and transportation," Hallquist said, adding that he spoke to Bonney and stressed that the Kansas City district isn't stopping students from transferring.

Another lawsuit is pending on the other side of the state. After the St. Louis district lost its accreditation in 2007, several families in that district who had been paying to send their children to the suburban Clayton School District decided they were owed free transfers based on the state law. They sued when Clayton refused to send their tuition bills to St. Louis.

The Missouri Supreme Court ruled last year in the parents' favor but sent the case back to St. Louis County Circuit Court. A trial has been pushed back to March to discuss several issues, including a claim by the accredited schools that it's impossible to comply.

Meanwhile, the Legislature is considering several proposals to address the transfers. One proposal would make it easier for districts to annex portions of unaccredited districts, while another proposal calls for suburban Kansas City districts to contract to operate unaccredited schools.

This week, Kansas City Mayor Sly James met with U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan about James' proposal to take over the district — a plan that would give James the authority to appoint top executives to run the district, eliminate the elected school board and put transfers on hold.

Duncan hasn't indicated whether he supports the move but has said something must be done to address Kansas City's abysmal dropout rate.

Gov. Jay Nixon said Friday that he has started meeting with people to discuss the transfer issue.

"With the dual complexities of litigation as well as legislation, I am in a mode now of taking a number of weeks to assess what the best path forward is," he said.

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