Turner v. Clayton: A Quick Look – By: Scott Kimble

Published by MoASBO, March 2011

As most school administrators have heard by now, the Missouri Supreme Court recently released its opinion in Turner v. Clayton, a case which could affect many Missouri school districts.  To quickly summarize the facts in Turner, the parents of children who resided within the St. Louis Public School District (hereinafter “St. Louis Public”), but attended schools in the Clayton School District (hereinafter “Clayton”), filed suit against St. Louis Public and Clayton arguing that St. Louis Public was required to pay the tuition costs of their children to attend schools located in Clayton pursuant to Missouri Revised Statute § 167.131.  Both St. Louis Public and Clayton argued that the plain language of § 167.131 did not apply to St. Louis Public.  Among the arguments adduced, both school districts claimed that § 167.131 was in conflict with S.B. 781[1] and therefore, could not be applied to St. Louis Public.  The dispositive issue in Turner centered on whether the plain language of Missouri Revised Statute § 167.131 applied as written.

Specifically, § 167.131 states,

The board of education of each district in this state that does not maintain an accredited school pursuant to the authority of the state board of education to classify schools as established in section 161.092 shall pay the tuition of and provide transportation consistent with the provisions of section 167.241 for each pupil resident therein who attends an accredited school in another district of the same or an adjoining county.

Subject to the limitations of this section, each pupil shall be free to attend the public school of his or her choice.

Mo. Rev. Stat. § 167.131.

The Missouri Supreme Court held that the unambiguous language of § 167.131 required unaccredited school districts to pay the tuition and transportation costs of its students who chose to attend an accredited school in an adjoining district.

This ruling may have drastic implications for school districts in the state of Missouri.  Currently, there are only two unaccredited school districts in Missouri, St. Louis Public (St. Louis City) and Riverview Gardens (St. Louis County).  The total school population of these two districts totals roughly 34,000 (27,000 in St. Louis Public and 7,000 in Riverview Gardens).  These two unaccredited school districts affect five (5) counties: St. Charles, Franklin, Jefferson, St. Louis County and St. Louis City.  However, one must also consider provisionally accredited school districts as they are one step away from losing their accreditation.  There are currently nine (9) provisionally accredited school districts in the state of Missouri.  These nine (9) provisionally accredited school districts are located all over the state and they could potentially affect twenty-seven (27) counties.  See Illustration below.  These provisionally accredited school districts range from the very large to the very small.  Should any of these nine (9) provisionally accredited school districts become unaccredited, then school districts in those counties or in adjoining counties will be faced with the same issues with which St. Louis County school districts find themselves currently contemplating.

With that information in mind, several possible problems for those school districts located within the same or adjoining counties of an unaccredited or provisionally accredited school district include the following:

One potential problem/scenario from Turner v. Clayton is that a small concentration of students from St. Louis Public may attempt to enroll in only a few school districts within St. Louis County.  For instance, if only five (5) percent of the total school population from St. Louis Public were to attend Clayton, it would cause Clayton’s school population to rise over fifty (50) percent.  If this scenario were to come to fruition, Clayton may be required to build new school buildings and hire additional teachers to meet the demand.  While § 167.131 allows for the receiving school district to charge tuition costs which could potentially provide for the hiring of new teachers, it would not fund the construction of new school buildings.  As such, to avoid potential overcrowding of its local schools, Clayton’s taxpayers might be asked to pass bond issues for the construction of new facilities.  This obviously places a burden on the receiving school district’s taxpayers.  Additionally, the statute is completely devoid of what would happen should the sending school district become accredited once again.  It seems to reason that once a school district that was once unaccredited but later regained its accreditation would no longer be required to pay tuition costs for those students who had transferred.  Further, those students who transferred may be required to return to their home district.  In the scenario referenced above, if Clayton were to hire new teachers and build new facilities to house these new students, they may be left with unneeded teachers and empty buildings once these transferors returned to their home district.

Another possible problem raised by Turner is that currently, the receiving school districts do not have a say as to what school building the student will attend.  The Court gave unfettered discretion to the student and his family as to decide where the child will attend school.  The implications are troublesome for receiving schools, especially as it relates to class size issues.  Currently, Missouri School Improvement Program (“MSIP”) guidelines establish minimum and desirable standards for student class size.  Receiving districts may find themselves in conflict with these guidelines and subject to scrutiny by the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (“DESE”).

Obviously, one cannot foresee all of the potential ramifications Turner may cause for school districts around the state.  Other areas not discussed above, but which could cause further consternation among school districts, include: transportation, special education services and athletics.  As a result of these potential problems, the Missouri Legislature has been called upon to provide a potential “fix” for Turner v. Clayton.  To that end, one bill has been filed and others will follow in an attempt to assist school districts.


Turner v Clayton Illustration

[1] Senate Bill 781 dealt with publicly funded transfers of students out of St. Louis Public and specified how St. Louis Public would be governed in the event it lost accreditation.

© 2011 Mickes Goldman O’Toole, LLC

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