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St. Louis County school districts still wait for decision on lawsuit over transfers

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 6, 2010 - Earlier this year, the Missouri Supreme Court shook up the public school establishment in the St. Louis area with a ruling that could lead to students from unaccredited districts like St. Louis and Riverview Gardens having the right to transfer, free of charge, to neighboring accredited districts -- and the districts having to take them.

The original case, brought by four families who lived in St. Louis, involved students who had enrolled in the Clayton schools. They wanted Clayton to bill the city school system for their tuition, even though they had begun attending school in the county as out-of-district tuition students.


To justify their plea, they pointed to a Missouri law applying to unaccredited districts. In their defense, the city schools and Clayton cited another law, seemingly in conflict with the first.

The Supreme Court did not actually order Clayton to take the students and bill the city schools. Instead, it sent the case back to a lower court in St. Louis County, which had originally ruled in Clayton's favor.

Since that time, the legal maneuvering has continued. Circuit Judge David Lee Vincent III first issued a stay in the case, then lifted it in September. All sides have filed arguments directly with the Supreme Court, pressing their case. 

Until the court rules, Clayton spokesman Chris Tennill says, changes are pretty much on hold, including any tuition payments being sought for the two students from the original plaintiffs who are still attending schools in Clayton.

"Due to where we are in the litigation," he said, "since the stay was issued, it stayed all transactions, including payment of tuition, until this is all figured out."

He said the district still receives calls from families living in unaccredited districts, but they understand when the situation is explained to them that at this time, Clayton and other districts are not required to accept them.

"We take the families' contact information and say we will get back in touch with them once we have something to tell them," Tennill said.

"The perception out there is that that plaintiffs won this case and we lost. In fact, all the court did was overturn the judgment that was originally in our favor. They didn't rule for anyone; they kicked it back down to the lower court."

Meanwhile, Clayton is urging its residents to contact legislators and ask that the law governing the situation be changed to restore a phrase that had been eliminated: "but no school shall be required to admit any pupil."

That change, Superintendent Mary B. Herrmann said in a letter to district residents in November, would place the resolution of the situation where it belongs, in the hands of the General Assembly, and restore discretion to local districts.

"Even though it's wrought with complexities," the letter said, "Clayton does not oppose the idea of students being able to transfer out of unaccredited school districts. We enrolled students from the Wellston School district until it was dissolved this past summer. We simply believe that enrollment of non-resident students must be addressed in a manner that lets individual school districts set reasonable limits in order to meet the class-size expectations of their respective communities."

It didn't take too long for legislators to jump into the issue.

On Dec. 1, the first day that bills for next year's session could be pre-filed, Sen. David Pearce, a Warrensburg Republican who will head the Senate Education Committee, submitted SB14, dealing with the issue of student transfers from unaccredited districts.

It would require the state Board of Education to act prior to the start of the 2012-13 school year to "establish specific criteria for the admission or rejection of nonresident pupils residing in districts that have been classified as unaccredited by the state board of education who seek admission into a school district in the same or an adjoining county that is classified as accredited."

Appeals of decisions made under such conditions could be appealed to the state board, either by a pupil's parents or by the school district involved.

Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.