Updated: Mehlville officials respond to lawsuit threat over transfers

Total of 216 Riverview students assigned to Mehlville schools

By Gloria Lloyd

In a statement posted on the Mehlville School District’s Facebook page Tuesday evening and also emailed to parents, Superintendent Eric Knost reports district officials are responding to a “lawsuit threat.”

“We have received a draft petition for declaratory judgment and injunctive relief against the Mehlville School District regarding the transfer of students from unaccredited school districts. The district will work with our legal counsel to respond appropriately to the court action.

“We continue to work to comply with the student transfers to the best of our ability on such short notice while keeping the best interests of all students in mind. We are in the process of enrolling 216 student transfers from Riverview Gardens while continuing to enroll in-district residents. We stay committed to educational excellence for all of our currently enrolled and future enrolled students.

“I’ll keep you posted to the best of my ability as we navigate this court action in the coming days. In the meantime, our mission and our focus on students will not be impacted. We will proceed as a unified district in our efforts to provide an outstanding educational experience for all children.”

Despite computer glitches that caused delays to the initial transfer lottery process and pushed the student assignment process into the weekend, by last Saturday night 216 students from the unaccredited Riverview Gardens School District received assignments to attend school this year in Mehlville.

As of Aug. 1 when the district turned its final numbers into the Cooperating School Districts, or CSD, Mehlville staff had identified open spaces for Riverview students spread throughout its grades and schools, with no spots available in kindergarten due to the introduction this fall of all-day kindergarten.

“I refuse to overload classes, so we’re focusing on classes that are already closer to those preferred desirable numbers, and we’re adding to them while not compromising the educational excellence,” Superintendent Eric Knost told the Call last week. “I think it’s sound, I think it’s the right thing to do.”

At the time the Call went to press, the district was planning a day for parents of Riverview students to come to Mehlville, enroll their students and meet students and parents from their new district. District officials also did not yet know which schools each transfer student will attend since Riverview Gardens has not yet set bus schedules for the school year.

“None of them know how they’re getting here,” Knost said. “Riverview Gardens hasn’t told one parent how they’re getting from their door to our school.”

At the Mehlville Board of Education’s July 25 meeting, Knost told the board the district had at least 150 open spots for Riverview Gardens students. However, that number was revised upward once in-district students completed enrollment.

“That’s why I was reluctant to say 150 in the first place, it’s a moving target,” he said. “(Open spaces are) evenly spread throughout the district without overloading classes.”

The Board of Education voted July 25 to establish its first-ever policy on class sizes. The policy adopts the “desirable” standards set by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, or DESE, as the preferred class size in general education classrooms whenever it is reasonably attainable.

The preferred class-size policy was approved with a 5-2 vote, with board member Ron Fedorchak and board Vice President Lori Trakas opposed. Trakas said she could not vote for the policy because it was “not specific or concrete enough” in setting class-size limits.

With the vote, the board set preferred class-size guidelines as those recommended by DESE: 17 students for kindergarten through second grade, 20 for third and fourth grades, 22 for fifth and sixth grades and 25 for seventh through 12th grades.

Mehlville’s current class sizes are above these “desirable” standards, but below the maximum standards.

The district had 11,700 students in the 2004-2005 school year, compared to 10,700 today, due to declining enrollment.

Since then, the district has set lowering class sizes as one of the primary goals in its Comprehensive School Improvement Plan, or CSIP. A 2008 capacity study conducted by Assistant Superintendent Lisa Counts found that student achievement increased in classes of lower sizes and recommended that class sizes be lowered from 20 students per teacher to 18 students per teacher, the current ratio.

The district could accept the more than 450 students who applied to attend Mehlville, hire more teachers and an administrator to oversee the transfers and still maintain those classroom ratios while bringing money to the district, Fedorchak said at the board meeting. If Mehlville took all 450 students who applied, Riverview Gardens would pay Mehlville $4.2 million in tuition.

“If we have 600 kids coming to this school district, that would be roughly about $5.6 million,” Fedorchak told the Call. “You would spend about $2.5 million of that on 30 teachers and a few administrators. The rest of that money benefits the Mehlville taxpayer. That’s money we can use to help all the kids, with technology, facilities or help us not have to roll up the tax rate … So my point is those kids are caught in the crossfire, there’s money with them to pay for their education here, and it would also benefit students and the Mehlville taxpayer.”

Riverview Gardens has an overall budget of more than $66 million and has $32 million in reserves. Although past receiving districts under the law had difficulty getting payment from the eventually disbanded Wellston School District, DESE has said the state would withhold payments to unaccredited districts if they fail to pay the districts to which they are sending their students.

Knost has done a good job managing the unexpected transfers of hundreds of students, Fedorchak added.

“I didn’t want to debate Dr. Knost about it,” he said. “It ended up looking like me and him were at odds, when we’re not. We’re in lockstep. My kids are in the district, so I wouldn’t want to do anything to hurt classroom sizes or endanger them.”

Under the Missouri Supreme Court’s June ruling in the Breitenfeld v. Clayton — formerly Turner v. Clayton — case, students residing in unaccredited districts may choose to attend another district in the same or adjoining counties.

Under DESE guidelines, the unaccredited, or sending district, must choose at least one accredited school district where they will transport students interested in a transfer. Riverview Gardens chose Mehlville as its primary receiving district on July 9 without prior consultation on classroom space available, Knost has said.

Riverview Gardens chose Kirkwood as its second transportation district last week, but will not choose a third district, CSD officials said during the lottery process.

Combined, Mehlville and Kirkwood could take less than half of the students applying to transfer from Riverview Gardens.

The other unaccredited district in the area, Normandy, chose to transport its students to the Francis Howell School District in St. Charles County, which had space for all the students who selected it as their first choice.