Analysis: Miss. school transfer law challenged

By Jack Elliot Jr./The Associated Press

JACKSON — Under Mississippi law, students must attend schools in the district where they live unless there is a mutual transfer agreement between school districts.

Not everyone likes the idea, as the Mississippi Supreme Court will learn as its referees a dispute between Mark and Laura Fails. The couple filed a lawsuit against the Jefferson Davis County school system that goes to the heart of the transfer law.

By law, students can transfer between school districts only if both school boards agree. There have been some failed attempts to tinker with the law, but Mississippi legislators have generally agreed the transfer issue is a local one.

It hasn’t been all peace and harmony. Generally, parents have seen the issue as a freedom of choice. The school district wants to protect its right, under the law, to prevent a wholesale exodus and to protect local funding.

In Mississippi when students transfer to other districts, state money goes with them. Several school districts across the state have been reviewing their local transfer policies particularly during the tough economy.

In 2003, the Fails family, who lived in Jefferson Davis County, obtained a transfer for their daughter to attend school in Sumrall in Lamar County Public School District.

In 2007, the Jefferson Davis school district went into conservatorship. As a result, it revoked all previous transfers. That meant the Fails’ daughter had to return to Jefferson Davis schools.

The couple sued and lost in circuit court. The state Court of Appeals last May sided with the school system.

Among the arguments by the Fails were that school board couldn’t revoke a student’s transfer from one district to another after the transfer was approved. They also claimed the school board could not adopt a blanket policy against transfers from one district to another.

The Appeals Court said nothing in state law suggests that once consent has been given for a transfer it cannot be withdrawn.

The school district had obtained an attorney general’s opinion that said: “The release of the student to attend school in another school district is not permanent. The transfer is effective until either party revokes its consent.”

The Appeals Court also ruled the school district was allowed to adopt any transfer policy it wanted, including a blanket policy that banned all transfers.

There have been some court cases on the school transfer issue.

In 2007, the Booneville and Prentiss County school districts settled out of court a year-old dispute over the transfer of students. The Prentiss County Board of Education the previous year voted to end student transfers to other school districts.

Parents of 135 students who live in an area of Booneville annexed in the late 1980s sued the Prentiss County School Board. They wanted their children to attend Booneville schools. The Booneville School District and the city of Booneville joined the parents’ group as plaintiffs in the case.

The settlement spelled out how student transfers would be handled in the future and the rights of students in the annexed to stay where they were.

In 2010, a federal judge ordered a small south Mississippi school district to stop allowing hundreds of white students to transfer out of majority-black schools. The U.S. Justice Department contended the school district had, for years, allowed hundreds of white students to transfer from predominantly black Tylertown schools to Salem Attendance Center.

The judge ordered the Walthall County School District to change its transfer policy to only allow transfers to a school outside a student’s residential zone only if students can justify it as a well-documented medical emergency or if students have a parent working full-time at a school outside their zone.

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