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Kansas City may be focus in school transfer cases

Kansas City may be focus in school transfer cases

October 28th, 2012 in News

KANSAS CITY (AP) - Missouri officials want a Kansas City lawsuit, not an older St. Louis case, to determine whether public school students can take advantage of a law allowing them to transfer from floundering districts, court documents suggest.

Attorney General Chris Koster, whose office is tasked with defending state law, signaled Friday that he wants to wrap up the 5-year-old St. Louis lawsuit after the city's school district gained provisional accreditation earlier this month. While still short of full accreditation, the designation means the transfer law would no longer apply to St. Louis Public Schools.

The law requires unaccredited districts to pick up the tab to send students to nearby districts, but students so far haven't been able to use it to transfer while the litigation continues.

In a motion asking to have the St. Louis case moved from the Missouri Supreme Court to the St. Louis County Circuit Court to tie up loose ends, Koster's office wrote that the main issue - whether it's impossible to comply - is "moot."

If the motion is granted, the case to watch becomes one filed by five suburban districts surrounding the unaccredited Kansas City school district. That lawsuit claims the transfer law violates a state constitutional ban on unfunded mandates, known as the Hancock Amendment.

"We believe it's unconstitutional to require these school districts to accept student transfers without funding," said Duane Martin, the attorney for taxpayers in the five suburban Kansas City districts. "We believe it's a critical issue for school districts across the state."

The outcome of the litigation will affect Kansas City and Riverview Gardens' unaccredited districts, as well as students in Normandy, which is losing its accreditation Jan. 1.

Two notices of appeal were filed Friday in the Kansas City case that could put it before the Missouri Supreme Court.

Both stem from Jackson County Judge Brent Powell's August ruling in which he found a Hancock Amendment violation only in the Independence, North Kansas City and Lee's Summit districts.

One of the appeal notices was filed by taxpayers in the Blue Springs and Raytown districts, who claim they also would be financially harmed. The other appeal was filed by Koster's office, which contends there should be enough money to cover transfer costs in all five districts.

Martin said Friday's filing from Koster's office signals the state wants to "get rid" of the St. Louis case "thereby making the Kansas City case, the case."

The St. Louis lawsuit now before the Supreme Court was filed by families who were already paying to send their children to public schools in suburban Clayton when St. Louis lost its accreditation in 2007. The parents said then that St. Louis should start paying the transfer tab.

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 the Hancock Amendment. Vincent awarded more than $550,000 in legal fees to attorneys representing taxpayers in the Clayton and St. Louis districts.

Koster noted in his ruling that "only the education of and unpaid tuition for the plaintiff students remains an issue." He also questioned the legal fees award stemming from the Hancock Amendment challenge, noting that only two plaintiff children were able to transfer.

"There is no rational claim that it was impossible for Clayton to educate or for St. Louis to pay tuition for the two students," the motion says.

Elkin Kistner, Breitenfeld's attorney, has said previously that he believes there are still issues to be resolved. He didn't immediately return phone calls from The Associated Press.