Update: According to the Associated Press, Gov. Jay Nixon said Wednesday that he plans to veto an education bill which would allow students to change districts if they live too far from their schools. See the related story for more information.
Local superintendents are keeping a close eye on a bill sitting on the governor’s desk that would allow some students who face lengthy bus rides to switch school districts and attend another closer to home.
Nixon has until July 14 to sign or veto the school transportation legislation. If no action is taken, the bill would automatically take effect, according to the Associated Press.
The legislation would affect just the areas of St. Albans in Franklin County, St. Elizabeth in Miller County and Gravois Mills in Morgan County.
However, interest in what happens is much broader.
Under the legislation, families in those communities could enroll their children in a different district if they live at least 17 miles from the school they are supposed to attend and another district is at least 7 miles closer. Parents would need to request the transfer, and it could be denied if classrooms are already full.
Washington School District Superintendent Dr. Lori VanLeer, whose district includes St. Albans, has been very vocal about her opposition to the bill. She has sent a letter to Nixon urging him to veto it because it violates both the Missouri Constitution and the Hancock Amendment.
VanLeer says HB 1789 is “unconstitutional and contrary to good public policy.
“It is designed to benefit a few individuals, while causing substantial harm to school districts and setting a dangerous precedent in the state,” she states in the letter.
Parents in favor of the bill say lengthy bus rides can take a toll on children and make participating in school sports and other activities difficult.
State education officials currently can assign students to a different school district when there are transportation challenges, such as a one-way trip of more than 75 minutes.
Argues Against Passage
In her letter to Nixon, VanLeer states that the Missouri Constitution prohibits passage of special legislation. She points out that the proposed bill is based on narrow population categories, geography and constitutional status.
She maintains the bill was passed to satisfy a few individuals who were unhappy with the results of their application for a transportation hardship.
This past school year six students in the Washington School District who are residents of St. Albans were granted the hardship waivers due to long travel times allowing them to attend school in the Rockwood School District. Those waivers were granted from route data from the 2010-11 school year.
To address the issue and reduce the amount of time on the bus, the district added a special bus route. This reduced the bus ride from about 75 minutes to 37 minutes. Three additional St. Albans students who applied for the hardship at the start of the year were denied due to the improvement made in travel time.
VanLeer said the other families who were provided the hardship transfers then realized they would not be eligible in subsequent years.
“Dissatisfied with this anticipated result, the families sought to have the law changed, resulting in the special legislation set forth in HB 1789,” she wrote in the letter to Nixon.
VanLeer said the proposed legislation also is in violation of the Hancock Amendment, which prohibits the General Assembly from requiring political subdivisions, such as school districts, to perform a new activity or increase the activity of service unless funding is provided.
Under the law, the resident school district is required to incur the cost of paying tuition for those students to attend school in the nonresident district, even if that amount exceeds the amount of per pupil state aid received by the resident district or the per pupil cost of instruction.
“This harms the taxpayers in the resident district who may be required to pay money for the few individuals benefitted by the bill,” VanLeer said.
Local Districts Concerned
Union School District Superintendent Steve Bryant said he and his staff are keeping a close eye on the bill because there are areas in his district that possibly would be affected if the bill is ever expanded.
He said in the far western portion of the Union School District, some students may be closer to schools in the Gasconade R-II District.
“In any fairly large district it is very possible that this could come up in many cases,” he said, “in a large district it could be common.”
Bryant added that he will review the legislation with his school board Wednesday night.
“If they are going to do this with these districts, what comes next?” he asked. “If the governor does sign the bill, I would be concerned as a superintendent that we might be faced with a similar situation.”
Bryant also had concerns about the tuition reimbursement.
“I’d be a little irritated if I was in the Rockwood District and the St. Alban’s kids are not paying their share,” said Bryant. “Washington is probably not as high as what Rockwood charges. That is really not fair to the taxpayers in the district.”
Randy George, superintendent of the Meramec Valley School, said while he is aware of the bill, he has not done a lot of research on it. However, he feels the legislation moved too quickly and statewide implications if it were ever to be expanded need to be considered.
He said it’s possible there are some Pacific High School students living in rural Robertsville that could be 17 miles away.
The Missourian was unable to contact the St. Clair School District superintendent for this story.
The governor’s office has received about 200 emails, letters and online messages about the bill. In a batch of about 150 messages provided to The Associated Press under an open records request, most of the writers urged Nixon to reject the bill.
The Missouri Association of Rural Education said in a letter to Nixon that “this bill might be the first of several moves to not only to provide an ‘open enrollment’ option but ultimately the forced consolidation of many of the very successful rural Missouri school districts.”
Editor’s Note: Some of the information for this story was obtained from the Associated Press.