Education officials urge veto for school bill

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by CHRIS BLANK

Associated Press

Posted on June 23, 2012 at 11:24 AM

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) -- Many Missouri superintendents, principals and other education officials are urging Gov. Jay Nixon to veto legislation that would allow some students who face lengthy bus rides to switch districts and attend classes closer to home.

Under legislation sitting on Nixon's desk, families in several eastern and central Missouri 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 school transfer, and it could be rejected if classrooms already are full.

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.

The legislation would affect just the St. Albans, St. Elizabeth and Gravois Mills areas. However, interest in what happens is far broader.

The governor's office has received about 200 emails, letters and online messages urging Nixon to sign or veto the legislation. In a batch of about 150 messages provided to The Associated Press under an open records request, most of the writers encouraged the governor to reject the bill.

Nixon has until July 14 to sign or veto the measure; if no action is taken, the bill would take effect automatically. The governor's office said it is reviewing the legislation.

In the meantime, administrators and school workers in districts from Stanberry in northwestern Missouri to Zalma in the southeast sent the governor's office numerous emails and letters from May 18 through June 6 that call for the bill to be vetoed. Among those to speak up were leaders in the Washington School District and the neighboring Rockwood School District, which each could be directly affected by the legislation.

Critics said the bill could face constitutional problems by affecting just a few areas and by creating an unfunded mandate for some local districts. Others called it "vague" and suggested the measure could create an incentive for people to move into the fringes of a district with low property taxes while enrolling their children in a neighboring school.

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 provide an `open enrollment' option but ultimately the forced consolidation of many of the very successful rural Missouri school districts." A state school administrators group urged officials to contact the governor's office.

"We thought that was a bill that was not good for the current time," Missouri Association of Rural Education Executive Director Ray Patrick in an interview.

Many of the letters and emails imploring Nixon to sign the school transportation legislation came from the parents and people living in those areas that would be directly affected by the change. Several people from St. Albans in northeastern Franklin County sent messages that described the transportation challenges they have faced.

Parents said lengthy bus rides can take a toll on children and make participating in school sports and other activities difficult. They argued that signing the bill is in the best interest of children.

"This bill will make it possible for families like mine to allow their children to participate in extracurricular activities and to receive help from teachers before or after school if needed without requiring a one-hour round trip drive by parents," Cory Kraft wrote in a letter to Nixon. Kraft this year had two children attending classes in another school district and two who were enrolled in a private school.

The Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education has received roughly 50 requests for transportation hardships since 2002. About a half-dozen have been approved.

Kraft, one of the leading supporters of the legislation, said opposition from people involved in education has been frustrating and hypocritical. He pointed to policies that allow school districts to enroll the children of teachers and school workers who live outside district boundaries and to be counted as resident students.

"The average person, those of us that pay for all this stuff, nobody is against this," Kraft said. "It's the establishment, and you have to ask the question: Why is the establishment against this?"

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