By Brandon Dumsky
The outcome of whether students in the unaccredited Kansas City School District can transfer to accredited Eastern Jackson County school districts remains uncertain, says Independence Superintendent Dale Herl.
The Independence School District held a special meeting Tuesday evening that was one part discussion of the Kansas City student transfer issue and one part what can be called a “state of the district” address, highlighting the district’s current academic progress and what’s in store for the future.
He said area districts expect at least 9,000 students from the Kansas City district, or 25 percent of its total student population, to enroll in neighboring schools in Jackson or adjacent counties, as allowed by Missouri law.
Herl said he met with Kansas City area mayors and state legislators in Jefferson City earlier this week to discuss the transfer issue. The meeting, he said, made reference to problems two other unaccredited districts in the state that are losing students to neighboring, accredited schools: the St. Louis area’s Normandy and Riverview Gardens School Districts.
“At that meeting, it was told the Normandy district will be broke by April,” said Herl. Under state law, an unaccredited district is liable for tuition and transportation costs if its students choose to attend school at another district. “What happens after that? We don’t know,” Herl said.
Herl compared the unaccredited transfer issue to an “illness that starts to spread,” citing students from unaccredited districts traveling to school for an extended period of time, unaccredited districts going bankrupt in order to pay out tuition and transportation costs, and potentially overcrowded classrooms in accredited schools as a result.
“It (transferring) is simply not in the best interest of students,” he said.
There are 45 eligible school districts Kansas City students can attend, said Herl. “They can go to school as far as Knob Nobster.”
The “New Path to Excellence” plan devised by Herl and other Missouri superintendents was once again brought up as a solution. The plan incorporates a pre-emptive approach to fixing underperforming schools individually rather than an entire unaccredited district by a review group appointed by the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.
“Do you completely disintegrate a district because they have a few underperforming schools?” Herl asked. The Kansas City district has 19 schools whose test scores and other academic measures would make them provisionally or fully accredited individually, but DESE’s current accreditation model brands the entire district as unaccredited because the remaining schools are not. There is legislation in the General Assembly to begin accrediting schools individually.
If Missouri law still stands before the start of the next school year, when Kansas City students arrive, Independence has a contingency plan to work with the National Student Clearinghouse to assist in enrolling incoming students, assess classroom and school capacity limits and accommodate the influx.
“I can answer KC student transfer-related questions in two parts,” he told the audience, indicating the uncertainty of the entire situation. ”One by the letter of the law and two, by DESE guidance, which is not legally binding.”
Asked whether it is up to the State Board of Education, Education Commissioner Chris Nicastro or the state legislature to decide the fate of Kansas City public schools, Herl said it is really a mixture of all three. But personally he believes the legislature will fix the issue and ultimately decide the outcome.
As for classroom and school capacity issues if Kansas City students should arrive, Herl said the district is “hitting our limits.”
“One-hundred-fifty kids at the elementary level just enrolled in our district this current semester.” He also said Independence receives approximately 350 to 450 additional students each school year as well. This current school year it topped an estimated 14,000 students. The district’s record, one previous school year, was 17,000 students.
The district determines its classroom sizes through several factors, including from physical, operational and instructional variables.
“Capacity is defined as the number of students that can be reasonably accommodated by a school building or site,” said Herl. He said his district goes by the suggested MSIP-5 classroom sizes recommended by DESE. “We ask, ‘how many kids can you take and not add any teachers?’”
Audience members asked Herl if he heard comments or responses on the transfer issue from state politicians such as Gov. Jay Nixon.
“He’s (Nixon) been very, very quiet on the matter,” he replied. “Shockingly so.”
Herl also pointed out that the State Board of Education is comprised of nine people, but none of those members represent the Kansas City area; that is until a person from Grandview was appointed just last week.