Judge rejects school transfer law for students in unaccredited districts
St. Louis County school districts do not have to accept students from the city of St. Louis because the law calling for such transfers violates the Hancock amendment to the Missouri Constitution by mandating action without providing money to pay for it, a judge ruled Tuesday.
St. Louis County Circuit Judge David Lee Vincent III, ruling in what has come to be known as the Turner case, handed the defendants — Clayton and St. Louis public schools plus taxpayers in those districts — a sweeping victory.
He said that despite a law upheld in 2010 by the Missouri Supreme Court that said students living in unaccredited school districts had the right to transfer to neighboring districts, with the home district paying tuition and transportation, Clayton and St. Louis had properly claimed it was impossible to comply because no money has been appropriated to pay the costs.
Without state funding, Vincent wrote, transfers "would (1) place an expanded burden on St. Louis taxpayers to pay tuition and transportation for resident students attending county schools; (2) require the transitional school district to pay $40,057.38 for (plaintiff) Breitenfeld’s children’s tuition; (3) place a burden on Clayton taxpayers by requiring the Clayton school district to construct new buildings for a student body that would double in size; and (4) eliminate the Clayton school district’s discretion to accept or reject students from unaccredited school districts."
Quoting from an earlier court ruling, he added that under Missouri law, "if a statute is such that it is 'impossible to comply with its provisions, it will be held to be of no force and effect.'"
Elkin Kistner, attorney for plaintiff Gina Breitenfeld, whose two daughters live in the St. Louis but have been attending Clayton schools, said an appeal was likely on the grounds that the "trial court is wrong in all of its rulings."
Asked if he was surprised by the decision, he said:
"Surprised is not the right adjective. Disappointed. Distressed. A feeling of despair. But you have got to reorganize and move on."
Attorney General Chris Koster also said he would appeal the ruling. A statement from his office said:
"The Turner case presents one of the most important questions for public education in Missouri today, and we will request that the Missouri Supreme Court provide a ruling on this issue."
Chris Tennill, spokesman for the Clayton schools, said the district was “extremely pleased” with a ruling that “affirmed pretty much all of the contentions that we have held about the Turner case for the last five years.”
He said it was too early to determine whether Clayton would seek payment of nearly $50,000 in tuition from Breitenfeld, plus legal fees, as awarded by Vincent, but he did not think her children’s education at Clayton would be interrupted.
“We have always made very kid-friendly, kid-centered decisions, with respect to the children of the plaintiffs,” Tennill said, “and have never done anything to interrupt their education just because the grownups disagree. I don’t know why we would change that at this point.”
Start of update: Kelvin Adams, superintendent of the St. Louis Public Schools, said, “I wasn’t necessarily surprised. I was pleased. We put on testimony we thought was compelling, and obviously the judge felt the same way. I’m obviously glad the decision was favorable to the school district. I’m glad this is one chapter that is behind us now.”
Asked what he would now tell families who are looking at the various choices of education and have had one option closed to them, Adams responded:
“We already have a lot of choice and options, and I intend to announce some additional options at the board meeting Thursday night. There are schools that are doing well in this district. We are not where we need to be. Accreditation is a five-year window of time, and every year we have shown progress.”
What kinds of additional options will be announced — new kinds of schools or additional schools like what the district already offered? Adams wouldn’t get specific, pending approval by the board, but did say it would be a little of both. End update.
Case sent back from Supreme Court
Nearly two years ago, the Missouri Supreme Court upheld the law in question, which had been passed in 2000 in an effort to make sure that students who live in unaccredited school districts had the opportunity to transfer to nearby districts that are accredited.
But the court sent the case back to St. Louis County for evidence on what the effects of compliance would be.
On one side of the case were Breitenfeld — who became the sole plaintiff after others, including the Turner family for whom the case became known, dropped out — and the state of Missouri, which was defending the law.
On the other side were the school districts of Clayton and St. Louis, plus taxpayers in each of those districts.
The taxpayers were added because it was expected that the court would rule that cases involving the Hancock amendment could be decided only if individuals were parties, not governmental jurisdictions. In fact, in another case on the same law, this one from Webster Groves, the Supreme Court ruled exactly that, with the decision coming down in March while Vincent was hearing the Turner/Breitenfeld case.
One of the key arguments by the defendants was based on a survey commissioned by Clayton and conducted by Terry Jones, a political science professor at the University of Missouri at St. Louis. It concluded that if the law were upheld and suburban districts had to take any students who wanted to transfer from the city, more than 15,000 students likely would take advantage of the opportunity.
Of those, more than 3,500 would go to Clayton, which currently has a student body of 2,500.
The defendants argued that the costs involved with such transfers would be overwhelming, both to the receiving districts, which may have to build new facilities, and to the city schools, which would have to pay tuition and transportation and lose state aid to the point that it would have very little money left to educate the 15,000 students expected to remain.
Hancock and impossibility
In his ruling, Vincent quoted from two portions of the Hancock amendment.
“The state is prohibited from requiring any new or expanded activities by counties and other political subdivisions without full state financing, or from shifting the tax burden to counties and other political subdivisions.”
The other says:
“A new activity or service or an increase in the level of any activity or service beyond that required by existing law shall not be required by the general assembly or any state agency of counties or other political subdivisions, unless a state appropriation is made and disbursed to pay the county or other political subdivision for any increased costs.”
Vincent said no money was appropriated for the transfers from unaccredited districts, and under the law at the time the Hancock amendment was passed students such as the Breitenfeld children would not have been eligible to transfer, so the transfer law – passed in 2000 – created a new service that was not paid for.
Additionally, Vincent agreed with such an impossibility defense, saying that the evidence showed that enforcement of the transfer law “would overwhelm area school resources to the extent of adversely impacting local districts.”
Therefore, he concluded, compliance with the law “is impossible and held to be of no force and effect” and the city schools and Clayton “are excused from complying with its mandate.”
Asked about the impossibility defense, Kistner, who was lawyer for the plaintiffs, said he did not think it was a viable theory in this case.
“But that’s the reason you have appellate courts,” he said. “Lawyers and judges are going to disagree at times, sometimes profoundly.”
Tennill, at Clayton, emphasized that the trial has never been about whether Clayton schools have been willing to take students from the city, only about the circumstances under which the students would transfer and who would pay the bill.
“Clayton has a long and rich history of doing that,” he said of accepting city students, “but doing it within reasonable parameters. That is all we have been looking for, not just on behalf of our district but on behalf of all of the districts in the state that are affected by this.”
Coming up with a so-called “Turner fix” in case the law was upheld has occupied a lot of attention in Jefferson City during the legislative session that is set to end May 18. Some proposals would limit the circumstances under which students could transfer; others would create other options, such as more charter schools, to ease the pressure on suburban districts.
Lawmakers had been expected to come up with some sort of solution to the dilemma during last year’s session, but they did not. With this year’s trial coming in the middle of the session, many thought that Vincent might delay his ruling to see if legislators came up with any solution this time around.
Instead, his ruling came out with less than three weeks left in the session. Asked if he was surprised at the timing, Kistner replied:
“I didn’t know what to expect. Judge Vincent has always said he would issue a ruling fairly quickly, and I believed him.”
Read the ruling, posted by St. Louis Public Radio: