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Mehlville faces lawsuit by parents over transfer limits

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: Three parents in Riverview Gardens say they will file suit against the Mehlville School District Thursday afternoon unless Mehlville drops its limits on how many transfer students it will accept.

The threatened suit is the latest move in the legal maneuvering that began in 2007 over a law that says students who live in unaccredited school districts may transfer to accredited districts in the same or an adjacent county. The law says the home district must pay for tuition as well as for transportation to at least one designated receiving district.

After the Missouri Supreme Court upheld the law in June, districts quickly began preparing for transfers – Riverview Gardens and Normandy to send students, other area districts to receive them.

Last month, Riverview Gardens chose Mehlville as its primary transportation district. At first, Mehlville Superintendent Eric Knost said his district would be able to accommodate just 150 transfer students; after transfer applications were processed over the past several days, Mehlville ended up taking 216 transfer students from Riverview Gardens of the more than 500 who applied.

But according to the lawsuit that has been prepared, representing three Riverview Gardens parents, Mehlville is obligated under the transfer law to accept all students who apply, without discretion to determine how many students may enroll at a receiving district.

The school year starts Aug. 12 for Riverview Gardens and Aug. 15 for Mehlville.

A letter from attorney Joshua Schindler to Knost says that the suit will be filed in St. Louis County Circuit Court unless the district contacts him to discuss a satisfactory resolution by noon on Thursday.

In a statement, Kate Casas, state director for the Children’s Education Alliance of Missouri, which announced the potential legal action, said that since the Supreme Court upheld the transfer law in a unanimous decision released on June 11, her organization has hoped districts would comply with its provisions.

But, she added, “upon comparing [Mehlville’s] student enrollment and capacity in recent years against the limited number of students it accepted from [Riverview Gardens], it is clear they are not in compliance and we are now stepping in as facilitator to help parents fight this injustice.”

Casas said the alliance has worked with nearly 1,000 parents from Riverview Gardens and Normandy, the area’s only unaccredited districts, to help them navigate the legal situation.

A statement from one of those parents, April Jones, said:

“My child is one of dozens of students who were not chosen in the lottery to attend the Mehlville School District. Unless Mehlville complies with the law and agrees to accept more transfer students, my child will remain trapped in the failed, unaccredited Riverview Gardens School District.”

Another parent who has signed on to the potential lawsuit, Lajunta Brown, said in the statement:

“The Supreme Court ruling gave us such hope. But that hope was squashed when we found out our children didn’t win the lottery. My children’s education – their futures – should not be determined by a lottery. They deserves better than that. I am committed to seeing this lawsuit through, if necessary, because I am committed to ensuring my children receive the quality education they deserve.”

In an email, Knost responded to the suit by saying:

“The district will work with our legal counsel to respond appropriately to the court action. 

“We continue to work to comply with the student transfers to the best of our ability on such short notice, while keeping the best interests of all students in mind. We are in the process of enrolling 216 student transfers from Riverview Gardens while continuing to enroll in-district residents. We stay committed to educational excellence for all of our currently enrolled and future enrolled students.”

The suit prepared against Mehlville may be only one of several legal actions growing out of the transfer situation. On Monday, the American Civil Liberties Union of Eastern Missouri said it had notified Knost and Thomas Williams, superintendent of Kirkwood School District, that they may be in violation of the law and the court ruling by attempting to limit transfers.

A spokeswoman for the ACLU said Tuesday that the organization had heard from the parents of about 15 students and were planning to take action that it would announce soon.

And KSDK reported that the NAACP also planned to file a lawsuit on behalf of Riverview Gardens parents.

Districts have said that they established class size policies based on guidance from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. DESE said its guidelines were meant to help districts navigate through the transfer process but did not have the force of law.

Kirkwood transfer forum

In the Kirkwood School District, which was designated by Riverview Gardens as the second district to which it would pay transportation costs after Mehlville announced its limits on transfers, Superintendent Williams hosted an hour-long forum Tuesday night.

He told the crowd in the half-filled theater at Kirkwood High School that the district has tried from the beginning of the transfer process to balance the requirements of the law with the needs of students, both those who live in the district and those who might transfer.

“We will not take resources away from anyone,” Williams said, “and we will do what we need to do to make sure every one of our kids has a quality education.”

He said that the short time frame that districts have had to deal with the problem hasn’t made things easy, but Kirkwood will be ready to greet and educate transfer students when the school year starts on Aug. 20.

“We’re going to wrap our arms around them and give them what they need to be successful,” Williams said, adding:

“This all new to everybody. We’re all going one day at a time on this.”

Questions ranging from payment of tuition to the safety and security to transportation took up most of the forum. Audience members applauded several times, primarily in response to praise about how the district has handled the situation.

State Sens. Eric Schmitt, R-Glendale, and Scott Sifton, D-Affton, who represents parts of the district, said lawmakers will be focused on changes in the law when they reconvene in January.

Sifton repeated his idea that transportation districts for transfer students should be designated not by their home district but by a neutral party, such as the state board of education. Schmitt said the two main issues involved are making sure local districts don’t have to pay extra to accommodate transfer students and that receiving districts have some say over how many students they can accept.

Both men said that the issue crosses party lines and everyone, Republican and Democrat, will be focused on finding a solution to providing a high-quality education for all students without bankrupting unaccredited districts that will lose students and the state aid that will follow them.

“The answer most certainly is not to be busing kids everywhere across this region every single day,” Schmitt said.

Letter from Nicastro

Chris Nicastro, the state’s commissioner for elementary and secondary education, said in aletter to members of the General Assembly, released Tuesday, that while the transfer process appears to be moving ahead smoothly, her department is concerned about the $35 million the moves will cost Normandy and Riverview Gardens.

She noted that about 75 percent of the students in those districts have elected not to transfer, and there is a real worry that there may not be enough money for the districts to be able to pay for their education.

Nicastro recounted the efforts both districts have made in their quest to regain accreditation, and she noted that the superintendents in each district have been in the job only since July.

“In both districts the ability and/or the willingness of the staff to implement our suggestions and apply training has been limited,” Nicastro wrote. “Some of our suggestions have been completely ignored. Our efforts to provide professional guidance and support will continue. We hope that new administrations in both districts will be more receptive to assistance.”

She concluded by saying that lawmakers need to step in and fix not only any problems with the transfer law but deficiencies in education in general, to prevent the stresses on poorly performing schools from getting any worse.

“Long term,” Nicastro wrote, “we believe that this is the time to have a serious statewide conversation about the issue of failing schools and districts, and about how we, as a state, can ensure quality educational access for every child. We need a comprehensive plan for addressing this need in a systemic, sustainable way that considers new frameworks for governance, operations and performance at the school level.…

“Over the next several months, we will be working with professionals as well as the communities in all our failing districts to determine what such a statewide plan might look like. As with other efforts, any plan needs to take into account the specific needs and unique character of the community. This will be different from one part of the state to another, from one district to the next. I sincerely hope that many of you will choose to help us develop this system in the coming weeks and months.”

Cooperating School Districts, which has been facilitating the transfer process, said Tuesday that the final number of applications from Normandy and Riverview Gardens is 2,629, down slightly because of some duplication in earlier numbers. Efforts to place about 300 students who didn’t get their first choices in districts are expected to be completed within a day or two.

Sherrie Wehner, the organization’s chief marketing and development officer, told reporters that receiving districts are still making calls to students they have accepted, giving them details about the upcoming start of school.

Wehner said every student who wants to transfer will find a place, though it may not be their top choices. “There is plenty of capacity around the region for these kids,” she said.

But she also expressed concern about the financial future of the unaccredited districts. “That is what has been the real challenge all along,” Wehner said.

The toughest part of the process, she said, has been the tight timetable from when the Supreme Court handed down its ruling on June 11 to the start of school for most districts about two months later. Francis Howell, which is the designated transportation district for Normandy, begins classes this Thursday.

She said she hopes that in future years, the transfers could be handled in a more orderly, less improvised fashion.

“I think everybody who has been involved in this process realizes that this was not the way to do this,” Wehner 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.