How many is too many? State attorney presses Clayton on how many students it could accept
The numbers game continued Tuesday morning in the trial over Missouri’s law allowing student transfers from unaccredited school districts. An attorney for the state of Missouri tried to pin down the superintendent of Clayton schools on precisely how many last-minute students the district could accommodate.
Questioning Sharmon Wilkinson, Clayton's interim superintendent, attorney Tom Smith asked if the district would be able to handle one student who showed up unexpectedly. Wilkinson agreed that Clayton could absorb one student without difficulty.
Smith then upped the ante — two students, 20 students, 100 students, up to the 3,500 students that a study commissioned by Clayton said would be likely to transfer under a state law that allows students in St. Louis to attend adjacent accredited districts, with their home district paying tuition and transportation.
Wilkinson responded that the district needs time to plan for any large influx of students, so it would have adequate staff, space and supplies to educate all its students.
Noting that Clayton schools usually work on a five-year planning timeline, Wilkinson said that 3,500 new students this fall would likely overwhelm the district’s ability to serve them.
“We have not done the amount of planning we would need to serve the students who present themselves in the fall,” she said.
Disruption to education
Wilkinson was the first of three witnesses from the Clayton district on the second day of the trial in the court of St. Louis County Circuit Judge David Lee Vincent III. The lawsuit was brought by the mother of two students living in the city who wants Clayton to accept them and the St. Louis Public Schools to pay for tuition and transportation.
Talking about the disruptions that large numbers of unexpected students would cause, Wilkinson emphasized, “I’m not talking about disruption to the district. I’m talking about how disruptive it would be to the education of the children. That’s our job.”
She added that “if you look at our numbers right now, we’re nearly at capacity.”
Wilkinson testified that in 2007, when the St. Louis Public Schools lost accreditation in 2007, and Clayton had to decide whether to accept transfer students under the state law now at issue in the case, it decided against it for several reasons.
First, she said, Clayton had accepted several students from the Wellston School District when it became unaccredited and had difficulty collecting the tuition payments. The money was paid only after lengthy negotiations. Wellston eventually was dissolved altogether and was absorbed into the Normandy School District.
Second, Wilkinson said that Clayton had been a longstanding participant in the area’s voluntary school desegregation program and thought that accepting transfer students from the city would undermine the goals of that effort.
Third, she said that Missouri’s commissioner of elementary and secondary education at the time, Kent King, had advised that transfers would be better handled through the deseg program than under the law that called for St. Louis to pay tuition and transportation.
Clayton’s director of facilities services and its chief financial officer emphasized that the additional cost of educating up to 3,500 new students, in addition to the district’s current 2,500 students, would add up to many millions of dollars.
Building five more schools, to match the high school, middle school and three elementary schools the district has now, would cost an estimated $156 million, for construction and land, which is far beyond the district’s current bonding capacity of $56 million.
Officials said that under the statute, Clayton could charge tuition of about $20,000 a student a year. Currently, non-resident students who sign tuition contracts with the district pay about $15,750 at the high school and $10,500 at other schools. St. Louis students enrolled in Clayton schools under the desegregation program are charged $7,000, which is reimbursed by the program.
In afternoon testimony, David Glaser, the chief executive of the desegregation program, said that Clayton had been one of the first county districts to become involved in the deseg transfers and had been one of the most active.
Responding to a survey done by Terry Jones, a political science professor at the University of Missouri at St. Louis that said more than 40 percent of the students in the voluntary desegregation program would leave to take advantage of the broader transfer opportunity, Glaser said:
“It would be devastating to the program to lose that many students that suddenly.”
He also noted that while transportation costs for the voluntary deseg program average $3,328 a student, costs for transfers under the state law at issue would most likely be higher because city students could conceivably choose any school in the county they wanted to transfer to.
In response to questioning, he noted that the children of Gina Breitenfeld, the plaintiff in the case, would not be eligible to transfer from city to county schools because they are white.
The day’s final witness, Angela Banks, budget director for the St. Louis Public Schools, noted in her testimony that the Breitenfeld children have never been enrolled in the city's public schools, so any money that would be spent by the school system for their tuition would be extra money that the district is not spending on education now.
The leadoff witness in Wednesday’s final day of testimony is expected to be Kelvin Adams, superintendent of the city school system, followed by Roger Dorson, on the finance staff of the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.
Vincent is hearing the case without a jury.
Supreme Court rules in Webster Groves case
The case being heard in Clayton is not the only one testing the statute. A judge last year ordered the Webster Groves schools to admit a student who was living in the city, though her family has since moved to St. Louis County. An appeal of that case was heard by the Missouri Supreme Court last month.
Tuesday, the Missouri Supreme Court issued a unanimous order in the case, reversing the trial court's judgment and sending the case back for an evidentiary hearing because both sides couldn't agree on the facts. The court also said that the Hancock amendment’s ban on the state issuing an unfunded mandate could not be used by a school district, only by a taxpayer, so that defense could not be used in the Webster Groves case. A similar argument was made in the case in St. Louis County Circuit Court on Monday.
Douglas Copeland, attorney for Webster Groves schools, has said it was important to resolve the issues because many students want to transfer.
"I was pleased that we will get a chance to go back and put on all the evidence," Copeland told the Associated Press. "Maybe we will get the legislators' attention and they will do something to get this resolved. This is a legislative issue, not a judicial issue. They need to address it."