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Missouri school transfer ruling opens old wounds

ST. CHARLES (AP) — Beth Gratta has heard the whispers, read the venomous online comments and watched with dismay as some of her friends and neighbors publicly condemned a plan to bus 475 students from a distressed urban school district nearly 30 miles away to her children’s better-performing suburban schools.

Yet Gratta, who teaches in another area district, said she is hopeful that her daughters, ages 7 and 13, and other students will be more accommodating than the parents, politicians and community leaders who worry the newcomers will bring increased delinquency, larger class sizes and lower test scores.

She’ll find out soon: Classes began Thursday in the Francis Howell district. Nearly 2,600 students from the unaccredited Normandy and Riverview Gardens districts in St. Louis County are leaving for better-performing schools elsewhere after a recent Missouri Supreme Court ruling upheld such moves.

“The apprehension is still there,” Gratta said. “A lot of the parents feel their children’s education will somehow be lessened.”

The wave of upcoming student transfers is opening old wounds and reviving difficult public conversations about race, class, income inequality and other thorny social problems that many thought — or at least hoped — has been set aside decades ago. Students at the two troubled district are predominantly black, with the schools and communities they’re headed to largely white.

The rancor was on full display in mid-July, when 2,500 people packed the first Francis Howell school board meeting after the district agreed to accept the former Normandy students. Some spoke obliquely of the “wrong element.” Others were more direct, calling for metal detectors at school entrances and predicting a rash of stabbing and violent fights.

The two troubled districts will be required to pay the receiving districts an estimated $30 million to accommodate the moves. School leaders in Normandy and Riverview Gardens say it’s only a matter of time before they go bankrupt, and state officials plan to ask the Legislature to intervene.

The fallout could have ramifications across the state in Kansas City, home of Missouri’s third unaccredited district.

Five suburban districts there allege that the Missouri statute allowing the transfers would violate a ban on unfunded state mandates. A plaintiff-funded survey of Kansas City parents projected that nearly 8,000 students would leave for better schools.

The latest legal maneuvers have their roots in a 20-year-old decision to change Missouri’s education law.

In the hurriedly written legislation, a longstanding student transfer law was revised to force unaccredited districts to pay for sending students to nearby accredited schools.

But little attention was paid to its consequences, since lawmakers at the time were dealing with larger questions about overall state education funding and revamping how schools were accredited.

State education officials say the rule has been used just once, an episode considered by many as a failure. After the 500-student Wellston district in the St. Louis area lost its accreditation in 2003, it quickly fell behind on paying tuition bills for its transfer students. It didn’t finish reimbursing the suburban districts until June 2010 as it shut down.

Kathleen Sullivan Brown, an associate professor of education at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, blamed poor planning by school administrators and a lack of political leadership for the current crisis. She says it’s only a matter of time before more districts encounter similar situations, whether in Kansas City or elsewhere.

“We have other districts that are going to be in trouble next year,” she said. “We should be preparing for Round 2.”

Normandy’s choice of the far-flung Francis Howell district in St. Charles County has been criticized on both sides, with some of its own parents wondering why their students can’t receive free transportation to closer schools. Normandy officials say the decision was one of cost as well as access: Francis Howell’s per-student reimbursement is thousands of dollars less than some neighboring districts.

But much of St. Charles County’s rapid growth is attributed to previous white flight among families leaving the city and parts of St. Louis County where black residents relocated over the past several decades, said Sullivan Brown.

At Francis Howell High, 150 student mentors gathered to help ease the new students’ transition. Transition Day participants included all incoming ninth-graders, not just the 45 new students from Normandy. The Viking Edge program, named for the school mascot, included a tour of the 1,900-student school’s sprawling campus, a review of class schedules and teacher meetings.

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