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St. Louis schools couldn't function if students left for county, says Adams

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 7, 2012 - If St. Louis Public Schools had to pay tuition and transportation for all the students projected to transfer to county schools under state law, it could no longer educate the students left behind, city school Superintendent Kelvin Adams said Wednesday.

Testifying in the final day of a trial to determine how the transfer law would be implemented, Adams said repeatedly that the requirement to pay tens of millions of dollars -- or more -- not only would make education impossible but it would interrupt the progress that the district has made toward regaining accreditation.

“It would be impossible to carry on any kind of successful school district with a loss of funds and students,” he said

The trial in the court of St. Louis County Circuit Judge David Lee Vincent III wrapped up Wednesday afternoon with the judge asking all sides to submit briefs in the next couple of weeks before he can issue a ruling. He heard the case without a jury.

He will be weighing the arguments made by both sides as lawmakers in Jefferson City continue debating possible legal changes that could make the case moot by altering the requirements that unaccredited districts must fulfill regarding the education of students living in their boundaries.

But similar proposals were made in the General Assembly last year and failed to win passage as a number of other education issues were tacked on. This year, similar efforts, from tuition tax credits to teacher tenure to expansion of charter schools, have also been introduced, making many doubt whether a fix to the transfer situation will pass.

The case was prompted by the city school system’s loss of accreditation in 2007. Gina Breitenfeld, a city resident, filed suit seeking to have the city schools pay tuition and transportation for her daughters Savanna and Elle to attend Clayton schools, as a 20-year-old law provides.

The Missouri Supreme Court upheld the law in 2010 but sent the case back to the trial court to determine how the law should be implemented. A telephone survey commissioned by the Clayton schools projected that more than 15,000 students living in the city -– some going to city schools, others in charter schools, private schools, parochial schools or taking part in the voluntary desegregation program -– would transfer to accredited county schools.

Witnesses testifying earlier this week said the cost to the city school system would be greater than its current operating budget and would not leave enough money to educate the students who would remain – -- estimated at 16,000 or more.

Under questioning Wednesday, Adams repeatedly reaffirmed that judgment, responding to a series of questions with varied answers that came down to the same conclusion: “impossible.”

Reviewing the conditions that prevail in the city schools –- high levels of poverty, students who speak 42 different languages at home and require special services for English, 10 percent of students who are homeless -– Adams recounted the strides since accreditation was lost.

Three factors -– financial problems, governance problems and academic achievement – were cited for the city schools’ becoming unaccredited, he said. Since 2007, governance has stabilized with the appointment of a Special Administrative Board and finances have improved greatly, particularly with a $96 million payment as part of a desegregation settlement that eliminated the district’s deficit.

In terms of academic achievement, Adams continued, the district would need only one point in its annual evaluation of MAP scores to meet the criteria needed for provisional accreditation. “We are in the right place,” he said, noting that the St. Louis schools have shown a greater percentage of improvement on MAP tests in recent years than the state as a whole.

But he emphasized that state education officials have stressed that the district would need to show sustained improvement, three years or more, before it is likely to regain accreditation.

“The state board considers that mandatory before even considering that a possibility.” Adams said.

Such continued progress, he added, would not be possible if the city schools had to pay the millions of dollars in transportation and tuition for students who left. He said that fixed costs would continue for the students left behind.

Adams also noted if white students left the city in large numbers to attend county schools, it would undermine the mandates of the settlement of the area’s desegregation plan.

As far as maintaining the progress toward reaccreditation, Adams said:

“It’s extremely important that the kind of growth we’ve seen continue next year and the next year and the next year.”

And if the school system loses funds because of transferring students?

“Progress stops immediately.”

The final witness in the trial Wednesday was Roger Dorson, a financial official with the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. He clarified an issue brought up with earlier witnesses: how much money the city schools stood to lose depending on how many city residents chose to transfer to accredited county schools.

He noted that the city schools get $3,620 a student from the state foundation formula. The city schools don’t get that money for city residents who attend other schools, but if those students chose to transfer, they would get those funds.

In the case of a transfer to Clayton, the city schools would have to pay tuition of $20,252 a student. The difference between what they get from the state and what they would have to pay Clayton -- $16,632 – would have to come from local sources of money, Dorson said.

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.