St. Louis families’ transfer lawsuits in doubt

KANSAS CITY (AP) — The outcome of five years of fighting by St. Louis families who wanted their failing schools to pay to send their children to accredited suburban districts has been thrown into greater doubt after the city schools received partial accreditation last week.

Missouri law requires unaccredited districts to pay tuition and transportation costs to send students living within their boundaries to accredited districts in the same or an adjoining county. At least four lawsuits involving the law were filed, three of them in St. Louis.

One case is before the Missouri Supreme Court, but legal experts and school officials said they aren’t sure what the court will do now that the school district has gained provisional accreditation, which is better than being unaccredited but still short of full accreditation. They said the court could well make a decision anyway, since the outcome would affect Kansas City and Riverview Gardens’ unaccredited districts, as well as students in Normandy, which is losing its accreditation Jan. 1.

The best-known lawsuit was filed by families who were already paying to send their children to school in Clayton when St. Louis lost its accreditation in 2007. The parents said then that St. Louis should start picking up the approximately $10,000 per year tab for elementary students and the $15,000 per year price for middle- and high-school students.

The Missouri Supreme Court partially sided with the parents in 2010 and sent the case back to a local court to work out the details. While the litigation continued, an agreement was reached to allow Gina Breitenfeld’s two daughters to attend Clayton schools for free. If the law was struck down, the district could seek payment. Breitenfeld is now the lone remaining plaintiff in that case.

Clayton had predicted a costly flood of transfer students, and St. Louis County Circuit Court Judge David Lee Vincent III ruled in May that the law couldn’t be enforced because it violates a state constitutional ban on unfunded mandates, known as the Hancock Amendment. Vincent awarded about $556,000 in legal fees to attorneys representing taxpayers in the Clayton and St. Louis districts.

The state, which is defending the transfer law, has appealed Vincent’s decision to the Missouri Supreme Court. Its opening brief is due next month.

The Missouri attorney general’s office is looking at how St. Louis’ provisional accreditation is likely to affect the case, spokeswoman Nanci Gonder said in an email.

“This might moot the case,” she said, “but if the Court determines that the issues in the case might arise again, the Court could still decide to rule on the merits.”

Elkin Kistner, Breitenfeld’s attorney, believes there are still issues to be resolved.

“If the state wants to get the substantial attorneys fee award eliminated or vacated, its path to doing that is demonstrating that the ruling as to the violation of the Hancock Amendment was incorrect,” Kistner said. He added that it’s still unclear whether Breitenfeld owes Clayton tuition.

If the case is dismissed, the courts are still likely to tackle the issue in a lawsuit filed by five suburban Kansas City districts.

Jackson County Judge Brent Powell wrote in August that three of the five districts wouldn’t collect enough money to cover the costs of educating transfer students, meaning a problem with unfunded mandates existed in those districts too. The two districts where he did not find a problem plan to appeal, said Duane Martin, an attorney for the five districts.

Transfers are on hold while the case is pending, and Martin said he is watching the Clayton case with interest. He suggested the attorney general’s office could try to get it dismissed as a “tactical” move since the Kansas City case might be a simpler one to resolve.

A lawsuit filed by a student who wanted to transfer to the Webster Groves district in suburban St. Louis was dismissed this spring, and with St. Louis having provisional accreditation, there may no longer be grounds for a case filed by members of the St. Louis Fire Department to proceed.

The firefighters, who are required to live in the city for their jobs, have been paying to send their children to parochial schools. They sued in January after their children were denied admission to three suburban school districts. Tim Belz, attorney for the firefighters, didn’t immediately return a phone call seeking comment.

Douglas Copeland, the attorney for Webster Groves, said the issue remains of great interest to St. Louis-area schools, which could still receive transfer requests from students in Riverview Gardens and soon Normandy.

“Just because the city schools became accredited,” he said, “doesn’t mean the issues changed for the rest of the schools.”

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