When the Wellston schools lost their accreditation on April 19, 1994, there was one option for students in that troubled district that was not common knowledge.
Under Section 167.131 of the Missouri Revised Statutes, Wellston would have had to pay the tuition and transportation costs for "each pupil resident" who attended "an accredited school in another district of the same or an adjoining county." That means from 1994 through most of 1998, Wellston money and likely state money would have followed a student accepted in the city's school district or any district in St. Louis County or the counties of Franklin, Jefferson and St. Charles. Apparently a few families of Wellston students inquired about that rule, but the trick was, the other district had to agree to accept the Wellston student. No district did.
Carl Sitze, director of the Missouri School Improvement Program in the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, got some calls from Wellston families about sending their children to University City schools, but the students never got that chance. "I recall that there was two or three families who called us regularly expressing concern about their kids being able to attend," Sitze says. "They basically wanted to go to U. City. One was a grandmother who was very concerned about her elementary-school youngster."
Lynn Beckwith, superintendent of the University City School District, heard of some of those inquiries. On Aug. 23, 1996, Beckwith recalls, he wrote Robert Bartman, Missouri commissioner of education, "asking the specific question: Did we have to accept Wellston School District students?
"Part of the problem was it was in late August," Beckwith says. "Nobody had said anything about us having to accept students, and we were not prepared for that, so I sought written clarification whether or not it was mandated. If he had said yes, we would have gone ahead with it."
But Bartman wrote that according to his legal counsel, neither University City nor any other district had to accept students from an unaccredited district. Part of Bartman's stance seems to have been inspired by a desire to cut Wellston some slack while it tried to improve its poor test scores and decrepit financial condition.
"We have no desire to stampede an exit from the Wellston district creating further deterioration in their financial position," wrote Bartman in a Sept. 10, 1996, reply to Beckwith. "Therefore, it was my decision that we would respond to telephone inquiries by citing the law, but would make no public statements regarding this matter until it was finally resolved."
In the next two declarative sentences, Bartman stated, "No school district is under any obligation under 167.131 RSMo. to accept students from neighboring districts. That is entirely within the discretion of local school officials."
With that opinion from Bartman, University City said no to Wellston's students. And nobody seems to have called a lawyer. "No one then litigated, no one took it for a further interpretation by the attorney general's office or didn't take it to a court, so those kids then stayed in their home district," says Sitze.
The statute is very clear that once a neighboring district accepts a student, it collects the compensation from the unaccredited district. There is also little reason to believe that state money wouldn't follow the student. But as to whether other districts must accept the students, the statute is foggy although the last sentence of the statute does conclude, "Subject to the limitations of this section, each pupil shall be free to attend the public school of his or her choice."
As it turned out, Wellston was provisionally accredited in late 1998, after being unaccredited for what amounts to four years. A district can be declared "lapsed" and absorbed into surrounding districts after two years, but in Wellston's case, an additional two years' grace was granted so that a tax increase could be passed and the district's budget bolstered.
Jim Morris, a spokesman for the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, admits there is a disincentive for school districts to tell their families about applying to another district. "In my experience, the fact that parents and students might have an option in this kind of case probably is not commonly known," says Morris. "The district has little incentive to publicize that fact."
Ronald Stodghill, superintendent of the Wellston district, doesn't remember any parents who requested that their children go to another district. "To my knowledge, there was not one instance of that occurring, and I was here during the entire period," says Stodghill. He even questions whether his district was officially unaccredited, an interpretation that is not shared in Jefferson City. "What happened was they moved from the old format of resource-based accreditation, whether you got so many teachers and so on, to output-based, which is the new way of measuring school districts. At that point we did not measure up," says Stodghill, who ties the problems to being "financially distressed."
Had Wellston students been accepted at other districts, even temporarily, they might have had the benefits of a wider tax base and increased resources. The Wellston district's assessed valuation is $20.5 million. Assessed valuation in the districts within a short drive is much better than Wellston's: University City, $330 million; Clayton, $585 million; and St. Louis, $2.7 billion.
Maybe next time when a district that is failing its students is unaccredited, disadvantaged students will stampede to a nearby district if they can find a decent lawyer to lead the way.