Transfer students attending Mehlville adjusting well, Knost says

Riverview makes payments on time, as billed, board told

By Gloria Lloyd

As the Missouri Legislature gears up to address the issue of unaccredited school districts and transfers when it convenes in January, the issue became even more of a statewide one last week when the state Supreme Court upheld a court case mandating that students in the unaccredited Kansas City Public School District can transfer to four neighboring districts.

And while Kansas City students and parents figure out how to navigate the law just as St. Louis County families did last summer, the hundreds of former Riverview Gardens students now attending the Mehlville School District are adjusting well, Superintendent Eric Knost said.

Some of the 216 students who started the year by transferring to Mehlville have returned to Riverview, leaving the district with roughly 200 transfer students.

The after-school transportation the Mehlville Board of Education approved so the students could participate in extracurricular activities is working well, and the district will spend much less than the $76,000 approved by the board, Knost added.

In a Board of Education discussion Dec. 12 on next year’s tuition rates, which must be set for students whose parents live in another district but own property in Mehlville and want to take advantage of a state law that allows them to send their child to Mehlville and take a tax credit equivalent to the tuition paid to the district, the board discussed how the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, or DESE, sets the tuition rates for unaccredited transfer students, using a different formula than the standard formula for setting district tuition rates.

The DESE calculation considers attendance as part of its formula and does not allow debt service to be taken into account in a district’s tuition.

This fall, the Normandy School District voted not to send tuition payments to the Francis Howell School District and then voted to rescind that decision. However, Riverview Gardens has made its first three monthly payments to Mehlville on time and as billed, Chief Financial Officer Marshall Crutcher said. Although Normandy has asked the state for money to get through this school year, Riverview Gardens has a higher reserve fund that should hold out for this school year, despite the steep cost of its tuition payments to Mehlville, Kirkwood and other districts.

Board member Ron Fedorchak said that he believed the district should set what it considers a fair tuition rate for Riverview Gardens, then let Riverview Gardens officials appeal to DESE if they thought it was unfair. Without debt service factored in, Riverview is not paying tuition that fully covers the cost of education for its students, he said.

Mehlville’s debt service equates to about $867 per student, Crutcher noted.

“It just doesn’t make any sense, logically,” Crutcher said about DESE’s calculation regarding debt service. “They allow (general obligation) bond expense, but they do not allow (certificate of participation, or) COPs debt expense … Just from a common-sense standpoint, it’s hard to understand why you would exclude the COPs debt.”

Board Secretary Rich Franz agreed with Fedorchak that the board should go ahead and set a tuition rate for unaccredited transfer students, despite the DESE formula that excludes some of the board’s expenses.

“I think Ron’s point, for the sake of procedure and protecting ourselves, has some validity,” he said. “If it’s nebulous as to who can say how much money we’re going to be reimbursed for, then it seems to me we’re better off having something in policy that we not only researched but we based on our own attorney’s opinions. So if DESE does come back and say, ‘This is how much we’re going to give you,’ and it’s an outrageous amount, we have some defense.”

District attorneys have told the district that transfer students are not covered under its regular tuition policy, but Knost noted that the transfer law might look different next year, since DESE and some legislators have supported the idea of setting a flat tuition rate that unaccredited districts would pay to transfer districts.

Under the current scenario, the unaccredited districts pay a range of tuition rates set by the receiving districts themselves and then determined through a DESE formula, resulting in ranges of tuition of roughly $19,000 in Clayton to roughly $7,000 in Mehlville. The voluntary desegregation program VICC sets a similar flat tuition rate for each district to receive, a rate higher than Mehlville’s cost for students to attend.

“Does DESE have the legal authority to say, ‘This is how much we will pay you for these students?'” Franz asked.

“That’s a great question to really paint the picture of how really messed up this spiral of events that occurred because of a Supreme Court decision … It’s not real clear where the authority is,” Knost said. “You talk to legislators, and a lot of them point to DESE and the power DESE has to do certain things.”

Following DESE’s advice on what to do in the transfer situation puts the district in a better legal position than if it made up its own rules as it went along, he added.