By Jeff Fox

A leader in the Missouri General Assembly on Friday expressed cautious optimism that legislators this year will pass changes to the state’s school-transfer law that local officials say are badly needed.

“It’s early, so I’m hopeful,” state Rep. Mike Cierpiot said at a legislative breakfast held Friday morning by the Blue Springs Chamber of Commerce. Cierpiot, R-Lee’s Summit, is the assistant majority floor leader in the House.

Legislators convened this week, and Cierpiot said the school-transfer questions would be one of three issues that would take up the biggest parts of legislators’ time in this session.

Under state law, students in an unaccredited school district, such as Kansas City’s, can transfer to another district in the same county or an adjoining county – at the expense of the unaccredited district. Officials argue that could lead to a large wave of students that could overwhelm accredited districts while making things worse, financially, for a district such as Kansas City.

“For our districts this could be devastating, and it could be devastating for Kansas City, losing thousands of students,” said state Rep. Sheila Solon, R-Blue Springs.

Cierpiot said legislators tend to be split on education issues, those who side with teachers and education establishment and those who favor significant school reforms.

“Both sides are geared up. Both sides are heard from,” he said. “Both sides can kill something. It’s easier to get something killed than to get it passed.”

But Cierpiot said he sees hope in a bill filed by Sen. David Pearce, who usually aligns himself with educators. That bill, like others, would let accredited districts establish caps on classroom sizes and in effect declare an overall student capacity and then not be compelled to take students beyond that number. His bill also would call for accreditation by school, not district, and let Kansas City students in failing schools transfer into ones that are succeeding.

“Some of them are doing very well,” Cierpiot said.

He said legislators in the reform camp have indicated they might be OK with Pearce’s approach.

“So I’m hopeful that we can use that as a starting point. ... because it’s something that we really need to do,” Cierpiot said.

Solon added, “That is the biggest issue facing lawmakers from Kansas City and St. Louis.”

Cierpiot said the other two major issues will be cutting state income taxes and taking up proposals to restructure and perhaps expand Medicaid, one of Gov. Jay Nixon’s highest priorities.

“But the Senate is telling us that they have no interest (on Medicaid),” Cierpiot said, “so I don’t know what we’re going to do with it.”

Nixon and legislators have disagreed this year on state revenue projections for the budget year that begins July 1, and Republican legislators are still upset with the Democratic governor’s decision last year to withhold funds in case an income tax cut was enacted over his veto and revenues fell. The veto held up, and the funding was released.

This year, Republicans are making another run at a tax cut, but only if state revenues overall are still going up. Cierpiot said legislators will likely pass supplemental spending bills, directing money to schools and universities.

“ ... but we want to make sure the money is there,” he said.

Solon said she favored a simpler approach.

“I believe we need to cut taxes,” she said.