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Transfer case lawsuits averted, at least for now

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: Threatened lawsuits against the Mehlville School District because of limits it placed on the number of transfer students it would accept are on hold, at least for now, as talks on the issue continue.

As a deadline set by the Children’s Education Alliance of Missouripassed, the group – which earlier had announced the pending lawsuits – said in a statement:

“While negotiations are still underway and a spot in Mehlville or Kirkwood has not been identified for all of the Riverview Gardens students who requested a transfer with transportation prior to the Aug. 1 deadline, we believe that school officials are working in good faith to find a resolution and the parties agree that additional time for this purpose would be fruitful.

“Therefore CEAM and the disaffected parents involved have decided not to file a petition at the St. Louis County courthouse today in the hope that by the end of this week the parties involved will have identified a solution that is in the best interest of children.

“CEAM remains resolute that all Missouri children have access to the quality education they deserve.”

The Mehlville school board met for several hours in a hastily called closed session Wednesday night to discuss the threatened lawsuit but made no statement after the meeting ended.

Late Thursday afternoon, Superintendent Eric Knost released this statement:

"Last night, I met in closed session with our Board of Education to discuss potential litigation against the Mehlville School District. Please know, legal action, causes of action or litigation are appropriate topics for closed session meetings and it would be counterproductive to discuss these matters in public. 

"Since our meeting last evening, we have learned the Children's Education Alliance of Missouri (CEAM) and the parent plaintiffs will not be filing suit today as was previously reported. Some reports in the media are suggesting Mehlville has agreed to take the remaining number of transfer students who need transportation. This is not accurate. Instead, we have mutually agreed to continue talks with all districts involved to formulate resolutions.   

"Our effort remains to comply with the law to the best of our ability while keeping all students' best interests in mind. We work hard to provide a quality education for all of our students and it is our goal to serve in a manner that does not compromise educational excellence." 

At issue is whether the law that lets students living in unaccredited school districts transfer to schools in nearby accredited districts allows the receiving districts to place any limits on how many students they will accept.

Language in the law used to include the phrase “no school shall be required to admit any pupil,” but that was dropped when the current law was passed in 1993.

Though students living in unaccredited districts – currently Riverview Gardens and Normandy in north St. Louis County, plus Kansas City – may transfer to any nearby accredited district, with their home district paying tuition, the unaccredited districts may also designate a specific district to which they will pay for transportation as well.

Riverview Gardens first designated Mehlville as its transportation district. When Mehlville said it would not have room for all of the students who wanted to transfer there, it designated Kirkwood as a second transportation district.

Because of the limits those districts have imposed on incoming transfers, CEAM said more than 200 students are left without a transportation option to an accredited district.

Earlier this week, the American Civil Liberties Union notified the superintendents in both Mehlville and Kirkwood that because of the language in both the law and the Missouri Supreme Court ruling that upheld the law in June, it was advising the disticts that they have no legal basis to turn away any transfer students on the basis of class size or available space.

An ACLU spokeswoman said Thursday morning that the agency may have a comment on possible litigation later in the day.

Accredited school districts that have said they could not take all of the students who apply have cited guidelines issued by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education after the Supreme Court ruling. Those guidelines advised districts to establish class size and admissions policies and post them on their websites.

But department officials have stressed that the guidelines are purely advisory and do not carry the force of law.

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.