Unconditional acceptance: the Supreme Court of Missouri's interpretation of Missouri Revised Statutes section 167.131.

AuthorMcCoy, Missy
PositionCase note

Turner v. School District of Clayton, 318 S.W.3d 660 (Mo. 2010) (en banc) (per curiam).

  1. INTRODUCTION

    The unaccredited St. Louis Public School District had an average daily attendance of approximately 23,550 students in 2009, (1) more than ten times the average attendance of the neighboring Clayton School District. (2) In Turner v. School District of Clayton, (3) the Supreme Court of Missouri faced the novel issue of interpreting Missouri Revised Statues section 167.131 as it related to children who resided in the currently unaccredited St. Louis Public School District but wished to attend schools in the accredited Clayton School District. (4) After determining that the unaccredited district was responsible for the tuition of students who attended accredited schools, the majority concluded that under section 167.131, when a child of an unaccredited school district chooses to transfer to an accredited district in the same or adjoining county, the school to which the child transfers must accept the child. (5) This interpretation of section 167.131 removes any discretion that the district may have had in accepting the transfer child. (6) Ultimately, the accredited district is forced to accept any student who transfers from an unaccredited district.

    Turner's impact on the accredited school districts of both the St. Louis metro area and the State of Missouri as a whole is severe, harsh, and unexpected. (7) Both the surrounding accredited districts and parents of students in unaccredited districts are frustrated with the lack of clarification as to what the ruling actually means and how it will be put into practice. (8) The practical results of the majority's interpretation will have major impacts on the areas of funding, transportation, and safety, to name a few. (9) The court's holding in Turner--that accredited districts must accept students from adjoining unaccredited districts--was a reading of the plain meaning of the language of the statue. (10) That reading has opened the door for a multitude of consequences which could not possibly have been intended by the legislature, indicating a need for the legislature to review and reassess the language of section 167.131.

  2. FACTS AND HOLDING

    Jane Turner, Susan Bruker, Gina Breitenfeld, and William Drendel were parents of school age children who lived within the City of St. Louis and within the borders of the transitional school district. (11) The parents all shared in the decision to send their children to schools in the Clayton School District in St. Louis County, which adjoins the City of St. Louis. (12) The children attended schools in Clayton under personal tuition agreements, which their parents negotiated with Clayton for the 2007-2008 school year prior to the St. Louis Public School District's June 2007 loss of accreditation. (13)

    After the loss of accreditation, one of the parents requested that Clayton bill the Transitional School District for the 2007-2008 tuition pursuant to section 167.131. (14) Clayton chose not to request payment from the transitional school district, and the parents filed suit against Clayton, the transitional school district, and the Board of Education for the City of St. Louis. (15)

    The parents sought a declaratory judgment that the Transitional School District was responsible for the payment of their children's tuition to Clayton because the Transitional School District was no longer accredited by the State of Missouri. (16) In their separate motions to dismiss or in the alternative motions for summary judgment, Clayton and the Transitional School District argued that section 167.131 did not apply to the instant situation. (17) Clayton asserted that the Safe Schools Act gave the district discretion as to which non-resident students it would admit from unaccredited school districts. (18) Furthermore, Clayton argued that because it had not admitted the children pursuant to section 167.131, the parents' claims were foreclosed. (19)

    The St. Louis Circuit Court determined that section 167.131 was not applicable to the parents' situation and that there was "no legal basis" for the parents' request for declaratory judgment. (20) The court then entered final judgment in favor of Clayton and the transitional school district, from which the parents appealed. (21) The Missouri Court of Appeals for the Eastern District determined that section 167.131 was not relevant to the situation because the parents were contractually obligated to pay the tuition under the agreement they had signed with Clayton, precluding any other party from doing so. (22) The court of appeals determined that it would affirm the judgment of the trial court, but due to the significance of the issues involved, it chose to transfer the case to the Supreme Court of Missouri. (23)

    Upon its review, the Supreme Court of Missouri determined that section 167.131 did apply to the factual situation of the parents. (24) The court found that under the plain meaning of section 167.131 the parents were entitled to have the Clayton tuition paid by the transitional school district. (25) The court further clarified that despite the Safe Schools Act, section 167.131 did not grant the accredited school districts any discretion as to which students they would admit. (26)

  3. LEGAL BACKGROUND

    While all Missouri children are entitled to a free public education, historically they have not been able to choose at will where that public education will take place. (27) With the passage of the Missouri Safe Schools Act and section 167.020, the Missouri legislature sought to provide a safe learning environment for children through procedures which govern the acceptance of students transferring from one public school to another. (28) other transfer restrictions on students of St. Louis City public schools have been put into place as a result of the settlement of Liddell v. Board of Education, a desegregation lawsuit. (29) After the St. Louis Public School District's most recent loss of accreditation in 2007, the desire of students to transfer to accredited schools outside of the district under section 167.131 has emerged, culminating in the Supreme Court of Missouri's Turner decision. (30) In order to reach their respective determinations on the meaning and interpretation of section 167.131, both the majority and the dissent employed multiple methods of statutory interpretation. (31)

    1. The Safe Schools Act and Missouri Revised Statues Section 167.020

      Following an onslaught of violence in American high schools and more specifically the death of a high school freshman in Missouri, (32) the Missouri legislature chose to enact the Safe Schools Act in 1996 in an effort "to ensure that Missouri's public schools are a safe place for students to learn and achieve." (33) Under the Act, students wishing to transfer to a different public school within the same district or in another district are required to prove residency within the district or request and obtain a waiver of the residency requirement. (34) By waiving the residency requirement, section 167.020 allows students who can demonstrate hardship or good cause to transfer to a nearby accredited district. (35) If there is any reason to suspect that the transferring student would cause an immediate danger to other students or faculty at the new school, the superintendent may conduct a hearing within five days of the registration request to determine whether to accept the student. (36)

      If the transferring student requests a waiver of any of the requirements of section 167.020.2, the district board of the new school shall hold a hearing as soon as possible but not more than forty-five days after the request for waiver was made, or the waiver will be granted by default. (37) The board has the discretion to approve or reject the waiver request. (38) If the waiver is ap proved, the transferring student may register. (39) If the waiver is rejected, the student has the opportunity to appeal the decision to the circuit court of the district's county. (40)

      Within two business days of a student's enrollment at a new school, the school official who enrolled the student must request records from the previous school. (41) The school official must also request the disciplinary records of the transferring student from all schools that the transferring student attended in the previous twelve months, as required by section 106.261.9. (42) The student's previous schools must respond to the request for disciplinary records within five days of its receipt. (43)

    2. The Right to a Free Public Education

      The Missouri Constitution entitles anyone under the age of twenty-one to a free public education, stating that:

      A general diffusion of knowledge and intelligence being essential to the preservation of the rights and liberties of the people, the general assembly shall establish and maintain free public schools for the gratuitous instruction of all persons in this state within ages not in excess of twenty-one years as prescribed by law. (44) While all persons under the age of twenty-one may be entitled to a free public education, that does not mean that the education can take place at the student's school of choice. (45) The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri decided just such an issue in Washington v. Ladue School District Board of Education. (46) In Washington, a student who presumably did not meet the residency requirements of section 167.020 was removed from a classroom and dropped from the district rolls. (47) The student claimed that this action violated his civil rights and requested a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction. (48) Upon reviewing the facts of the case, the court held that while "every child is indeed entitled to a free public education, nowhere in the Constitution nor in any statute of the State of Missouri is a child entitled to choose, at whim, the location of that education." (49) The court noted that a...

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