Legislators skeptical about schools bill

By Jeff Fox - jeff.fox@examiner.net
Posted Mar 17, 2012 @ 12:15 AM

Two local state lawmakers on Friday again expressed their concerns about whether the General Assembly this spring will pass legislation to help suburban school districts deal with the fallout of the Kansas City School District’s loss of state accreditation.

“I just hope we do something. We’ve let this go too long,” said state Rep. Noel Torpey, R-Independence.

Torpey and Rep. Mike Cierpiot, R-Lee’s Summit, spoke Friday morning at a legislative update sponsored by the Independence Chamber of Commerce.

Several school-related ideas are in play at the Capitol. They include charter school changes, school “passports” that would allow students in struggling districts such as Kansas City to attend private schools with public funds, overhauling the state’s basic school funding formula, and allowing districts – such as those in Eastern Jackson County – to set limits on how many students they take from unaccredited districts. But instead of passing bills to address those individually, legislators have tended to tie them together in order to get enough votes to pass something. Torpey and Cierpiot expressed some frustration that legislators from outside the Kansas City and St. Louis areas – including leaders in their own party – don’t see the accreditation issue as all that pressing.

For example, charter school changes are being tied to efforts to address the Turner court case. The issue there is that under state law, students in an unaccedited district – as Kansas City has been since Jan. 1 – can transfer to any district in that county or an adjoining county. Those transfers haven’t happened yet, but the issue is the subject of a lawsuit between several suburban districts and the Kansas City District. Massive transfers could compel a district like Independence – where schools on the western side of the district are already at or near capacity – to take on the cost of new facilities and added staff.

“If we don’t get something done with the Turner fix, our school districts are going to really struggle. ... We really need a compromise there,” Torpey said.

Cierpiot said he hopes a compromise can be found.

“It’s not Independence’s problem. It’s the state’s problem,” he said.

Both legislators underlined what Cierpiot described as the moral obligation to find a way to educate children in a struggling district like Kansas City’s.

“I mean, we need to make sure every child is educated, and educated well,” Torpey said.

Some argue that’s better done in students’ own neighborhood schools – under new management – rather than enduring the cost and disruption of transporting them to suburban schools.

Yet another bill, sponsored by state Sen. Victor Callahan, D-Independence, would expedite the state’s possible takeover of the Kansas City schools and parcel them out to Independence, Raytown and other neighboring districts.

Independence Superintendent Jim Hinson spoke in favor of that idea.

“Just give us the ability to go in and change the life of those kids in the neighborhood where they live, and I guarantee you we can do it,” he told the legislators.

Cierpiot also expressed a concern than in the absence of action by the legislature, the issues could end up being sorted out by the courts.

“I’m just afraid of what they might come up with,” he said.

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