Friday, October 11, 2013

Breitenfeld v. School District of Clayton [1]

Opinion handed down June 11, 2013

Parents of students enrolled in the unaccredited St. Louis Public School (SLPS) District brought action against the district, and the transitional school district, for declaratory judgment claiming the transitional school district was required to pay for students’ tuition and transportation to attend an accredited school in Clayton, Missouri (Clayton) under Mo. Rev. Stat. § 167.131 and 167.241, also known as the “Unaccredited District Tuition Statute.[2]  Both SLPS and Clayton objected by filing for summary judgment, which the St. Louis County Circuit Court granted.[3]   The parents appealed to the Supreme Court of Missouri, which reversed and remanded back to the circuit court for further proceedings.[4]  Before the consolidated trial on remand commenced, the trial court allowed taxpayers from Clayton and a taxpayer from SLPS to intervene as defendants to raise arguments that § 167.131 violated the Hancock Amendment of the Missouri Constitution.  Clayton also brought a counterclaim against a plaintiff parent, Gina Breitenfeld, for tuition owed.[5]  After the trial court entered judgment in favor of the school districts, Breitenfeld and the State of Missouri appealed, and the Supreme Court of Missouri transferred the case from the Court of Appeals on its own motion.[6]  The Supreme Court of Missouri again reversed the trial court’s decision that § 167.131 violated the Hancock Amendment; thus declaring the statute constitutional.[7]

I.                   Facts and Holding

In 2007, SLPS lost its accreditation.[8] As a result, the district was operated by the special administrative board of the transitional school district (transitional district).[9]  Pursuant to § 167.131, a group of parents requested that the transitional district pay tuition and allow the transfer of their children so that they may attend an accredited school in Clayton.[10]  In response to both SLPS and Clayton’s objections to the transfers and tuition payments, the parents brought suit, which resulted in Jane Turner, et al. v. School District of Clayton, et al., 318 S.W.3d 660 (Mo. Banc 2010).[11]  In said suit, SLPS and Clayton filed for summary judgment, which the circuit court granted and the parents appealed.[12]

       The Supreme Court of Missouri reversed the trial court’s judgment in Turner, stating that the transitional district was bound by § 167.131 and required to pay the parents their children’s tuition costs to attend Clayton.  The case was remanded for further proceedings.[13]

By the time Turner was heard on remand, only Gina Breitenfeld and her two children remained as plaintiffs, which transformed Turner into the instant case.[14]  By this time, Breitenfeld had transferred her children to Clayton on her own accord.[15]  The trial court also allowed taxpayers from Clayton and a taxpayer from SLPS to intervene in order to argue § 167.131 violated the Hancock Amendment. Clayton also brought a counterclaim against Breitenfeld requesting payment for delinquent tuition costs.[16]  The issues presented before the circuit court on remand included: (1) whether or not Breitenfeld’s children were entitled to have their Clayton tuition paid by the transitional district under § 167.131; (2) whether § 167.131 violated the Hancock Amendment; (3) Clayton’s counterclaim against Breitenfeld for payment of tuition costs; and (4) pleadings asserting that defendant school districts should not be required to comply with § 167.131 based on an affirmative defense of “impossibility.”[17] Defendant school districts produced evidence on remand that depicted how enforcement of § 167.131 would affect their operational costs and argued it would be impossible for them to maintain or improve their current educational environments if a surplus of students were allowed to transfer to their institution.[18]  Based on the financial and organizational hardships the defendants would incur if students were allowed to transfer, the intervening taxpayers argued § 167.131 required new and increased activities for the school district without providing appropriate funding, and therefore constituted an “unfunded mandate” in violation of the Hancock Amendment.[19]

The trial court agreed with the interveners.[20] The court relied on the 1978 version of § 167.131, which provided that each student is free to attend the school of their choice, but limited student discretion by declaring that no school is required to admit every student.[21]  After the trial court compared the 1978 version of § 167.131 with the current form of the statute, it determined the current form created new and increased activities and responsibilities for the school district by requiring the transfer of thousands of students without providing funding; thus making it an “unfunded mandate” in violation of the Hancock Amendment.[22]  Due to the court’s finding that § 167.131 was unconstitutional by violating the Hancock Amendment, Breitenfeld was ordered to pay Clayton $49,133.33 for tuition owed and the court granted attorney’s fees to the defendant school districts and the intervener taxpayers.[23]  The state of Missouri (The State) and Breitenfeld appealed.[24]

II.                Legal Background

A.    Missouri Constitution’s Intent to Provide Free Public Education

Missouri has inscribed the goal of free public education in a number of statutory and legal authorities that govern the state. Most notably, Article IX, section 1(a) of the Missouri Constitution provides:

“A general diffusion of knowledge and intelligence being essential to the preservation of the rights and liberties of the people, the general assembly shall establish and maintain free public schools for the gratuitous instruction of all persons in this state within ages not in excess of twenty-one years as prescribed by law.”

In addition, Missouri case law describes public education as an “entrusted governmental function of imparting knowledge and intelligence” amongst pupils.[36]  Further, it has been held that children have an undeniable “fundamental right,” not a privilege, to attend public schools established in their own districts.[37]  While there is a fundamental right of children to receive free public education in their own district, the Missouri legislature has enacted provisions that allow students to receive public education outside of their resident district as well.  For example, § 167.020 of the Missouri Revised Statutes describes the residency requirements of school districts, but adds exceptions for various cohorts of pupils.[38]

B. Mo. Rev. Stat. § 167.131 and § 167.241
An example of an exception to the conventional residency requirements is contained in § 167.131 of the Missouri Revised Statutes. Pursuant to Mo. Rev. Stat. § 167.131, “a school district that loses accreditation with the state board of education must pay tuition for any resident pupil who attends an accredited school in another district in the same or adjoining county” and the transferring district is required to pay tuition for the student to the transferee district.[39]  In addition, § 167.241 addresses the transportation of students that qualify under § 167.131 and provides in pertinent part:
“in the case of pupils covered by section 167.131, the district of residence shall be required to provide transportation only to school districts accredited by the state board of education pursuant to the authority of the state board of education pursuant to the authority of the state board of education to classify schools as established in section 161.092, RSMo, and those school districts designated by the board of education of the district of residence.”[40]

C. The Hancock Amendment

The Hancock Amendment, which aims to shield taxpayers from the government’s ability to unilaterally increase the tax burden by imposing unfunded mandates on counties and other political subdivisions without a vote, is codified into Article X, sec. 16 of the Missouri Constitution.[41]  The portions relevant to § 167.131 provide as follows:
“The state is prohibited from requiring any new or expanded activities by counties and other political subdivisions without full state financing, or from shifting the tax burden to counties and other political subdivisions.”[42]

“A new activity or service or an increase in the level of any activity or service beyond that required by existing law shall not be required by the general assembly or any state agency of counties or other political subdivisions, unless a state appropriation is made and disbursed to pay the county or other political subdivision for any increased costs.”[43]

The Hancock Amendment is violated if: (1) the state requires a new or increased activity or service of political subdivisions; and (2) the political subdivision experience increased costs in performing that activity or service.[44] However, a new mandated activity or service is not established if a statute  imposes a requirement that encourages the extension of an already existing activity, service, or responsibility.[45]

III.       Instant Decision

On appeal to the Supreme Court of Missouri, the State and Breitenfeld disagreed as to why the trial court erred in holding § 167.131 imposed an “unfunded mandate” in violation of the Hancock Amendment.[25] Breitenfeld argued that the mandates of §167.131 fit within the already existing mandate that school districts must provide free public education.[26] On the other hand, the state asserted that the SLPS already had a duty to appropriately educate its resident students, and therefore SLPS is not required attain “new” or “increased” educational services if § 167.131 mandates payment for students to transfer to an accredited district.[27]  The State also argued that the Clayton interveners failed to show that § 167.131 would  increase the burden of Clayton taxpayers, and while the transportation mandates under § 167.241 were new, the defendants failed to prove they were “unfunded,” which is required to show a Hancock Amendment violation.[28]

Citing the Missouri Constitution’s historically consistent belief that all children are entitled to free public education, the Missouri Supreme Court agreed with the plaintiffs and held § 167.131 contained no Hancock Amendment violation and was constitutional.[29]  Because districts are charged with the responsibility of providing free public education to all children, the instant court felt the mandates contained in § 167.131 did not add any “new” or “increased” responsibilities  on the districts to carry out its central educational goal.[30] As such, the court ordered the reversal of attorney’s fees for the interveners and the recalculation of tuition owed to Clayton on remand.[31]  However, the instant court did determine § 167.241, which requires an unaccredited school to pay for transportation of its students who seek transfer under  § 167.131 to the accredited district, did in fact impose “new” and “increased” burdens on the transitional district.[32]  Although § 167.241 imposed increased responsibility on the defendant district, the court held the SLPS taxpayer failed to show how the statute violates the Hancock Amendment by imposing increased costs on SLPS taxpayers.[33]  Finally, the court found that defendant district’s affirmative defense of “impossibility” lacked merit and basic reasoning.[34] The court noted that mere fact that Breitenfeld’s children were already matriculating at Clayton dispelled any allegation that the transfer of students was “impossible.”[35]

IV.             Comment

This case serves as a motivational charge by the Missouri Supreme Court to demand the school districts of Missouri to ensure their educational services are sufficient.  Effectively, the court has stated that if school districts do not devote their current resources to ensure the retention of accreditation, the citizens of their districts may bear the financial burden of ensuring students receive an adequate education.   On one hand, this opinion ensures that students will have access to an accredited institution regardless of the current state of their resident district.  On the other hand, this opinion has the potential to further strain school district budgets that already suffer from the pressure of limited resources.  There is a fine line between the aspirational goal of providing appropriate free public education to all children, regardless of where they live, and the harsh reality of fiscal crisis and strenuous circumstances.  Despite the quandary the Supreme Court was in, the decision was decided correctly in that the interest of the children seem to be the prevailing concern.

-          Melesa Johnson

[1] Breitenfeld v. Sch. Dist. Of Clayton, 399 S.W.3d 816 (Mo. Banc. 2013).
[2] Id. at 821.
[3] Id.
[4] Id.
[5] Id.
[6] Id. at 818.
[7] Id. at 819.
[8] Id. at 821.
[9] Id.
[10] Id.
[11] Id. at 820.
[12] Id. at 821.
[13] Id.
[14] Id.
[15] Id.
[16] Id.
[17] Id. at 822.
[18] Id. at 823. Defendants projected that 15,740 students would transfer from SLPS to Clayton and cost the transitional district approximately $262 million. Id. In addition, a Clayton school administrator testified Clayton’s enrollment would double and believed it to be impossible to accommodate students without sufficient notice. Id.
[19] Id. at 824.
[20] Id. at 823.
[21] Id. at 824.
[22] Id.
[23] Id. at 825.
[24] Id. at 825.
[25] Id. at 827.
[26] Sch. Dist. Of Oakland v. Sch. Dist. Of Joplin, 340 Mo. 779, 102 S.W.2d 909, 910 (1937).
[27] State ex rel. Roberts v. Wilson, 221 Mo.App. 9, 297 S.W. 419, 420 (1927).
[28] Mo. Rev. Stat. § 167.010.
[29] Turner, 318 S.W.3d at 664. 
[30] Mo. Rev. Stat. § 167.241.
[31] Ft. Zumwalt Sch. Dist. V. State, 896 S.W.2d 918, 921 (Mo. Banc 1995).
[32] Mo. Const., art. X, sec. 16.
[33] Mo. Const., art. X, sec. 21.
[34] Neske v. City of St. Louis, 218 S.W.3d 417, 422 (Mo. Banc 2007).
[35] Id.
[36] Breitenfeld , 399 S.W.3d at 827.
[37] Id. at 828.
[38] Id.
[39] Id. at 829.
[40] Id. at 830.
[41] Id. at 837.
[42] Id. at 832.
[43] Id.
[44] Id. at 834.
[45] Id. at 837.