Missouri lawmakers talk about state's unaccredited schools

Monday, November 7, 2011

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Lawmakers have been meeting with people around the state about what should happen in the state's unaccredited school districts as they consider the legislation they will push in the 2012 session.

Kansas City public schools' loss of accreditation takes effect Jan. 1. St. Louis public schools and the nearby Riverview Gardens School District lost their accreditation in 2007.

Some issues affect all three districts, including a contested law that says unaccredited districts must pick up the tab for tuition and transportation to send students living within their boundaries to accredited schools in the same or an adjoining county. The issue, which is before the courts, has the potential to allow droves of students to leave the unaccredited schools.

Two groups, the Cooperating School Districts of Greater Kansas City and the Cooperating School Districts of Greater St. Louis, consider the transfer issue their top priority this session.

They want suburban districts to have the ability to reject transfer students if they will overload classrooms. The suburban schools also want to limit transfers to students who've attended unaccredited schools for at least a year, with the exception of kindergartners. They said that if students from private and parochial schools seek transfers, the state will suddenly be responsible for educating more students, straining the state's limited resources.

Lawmakers considered making changes last session but failed to pass anything.

"Up until Kansas City was declared unaccredited, people just kind of wrote this off as a St. Louis problem and said 'The heck with it,'" said Don Senti, executive director of the Cooperating School Districts of Greater St. Louis. "Now this year maybe with Kansas City on board and people paying more attention, maybe it will pass."

Besides legislation aimed at addressing the transfer issue, specific attention also will be paid to Kansas City. State law gives the district more than two years to regain accreditation before it could face a state takeover. But some people don't want to wait that long before making big changes.

"I think there are lots of options that are available," Pearce said. "I think when you look at the fact that it's not working, that the Kansas City School District is not working. It is unaccredited, so what are some options out there? I do think that looking at different governance models, at maybe different sizes, breaking up the district, would certainly be options. I think many, many things are going to be on the table."

He said the Kansas City is the only district in the state with nine school board members and noted the board members represent different geographic parts of the district. He said the rest of the accredited districts have seven members.

"If it worked, I'd say that was great," Pearce said. "But it doesn't work, and so we need to first reduce the number of school board members. We need to reduce the reliance on where they are from and instead have people elected at large."

He said another possibility is to make it easier for neighboring districts to annex portions of the Kansas City district. He noted that after getting approval from voters, seven Kansas City schools switched to the neighboring Independence district in 2008. Many in the Kansas City suburbs of Independence and Sugar Creek argued in favor of the transfer, saying it would improve their property values and the quality of education for students at those schools.

Another possibility is to break the district into five or six smaller districts. Pearce said the district is "very, very large geographically.

"When you get so large that you don't have that community sense and you don't have the local buy-in which you would have in small school districts. So the concept of possibly breaking it up is probably not a bad idea."

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