As a St. Louis County circuit judge weighs whether four families who live in Normandy have the right to send their children to nearby accredited districts in the upcoming school year, Missouri education officials are trying to clarify action they took recently that is central to the case.
At issue is the sometimes arcane terminology educators use – in this case, words like accreditation, classification and status. While they may seem similar, and officials acknowledge they sometimes are wrongly used interchangeably, their true meaning could determine whether the seven students involved are allowed to transfer to Pattonville, Ritenour or Francis Howell.
Judge Michael Burton heard two and a half hours of arguments in the case on Wednesday but gave no indication when he might rule. Francis Howell actually began classes the same day as the court hearing; Pattonville students report to class on Monday, and classes begin on Thursday.
The ability for students to transfer out of Normandy hinges on a state law, formally known as 167.131, that says students who live in an unaccredited district have the right to transfer to a nearby accredited district. Their home district must pay tuition and in some cases transportation as well.
The Normandy school district lost state accreditation as of Jan. 1, 2013. In June 2013, the Missouri Supreme Court upheld the transfer law, which had been passed 20 years earlier. That set off a scramble of transfers from Normandy and Riverview Gardens, the only unaccredited districts in the St. Louis area.
About 2,200 students from those two districts transferred last school year, putting a financial strain on their budgets.
In May 2014, the state board of education voted that the Normandy district would lapse, as of June 30, and be replaced the next day by the Normandy Schools Collaborative, to be run by an appointed board. In June, the board approved rules governing how transfers would be handled for the upcoming school year, with an eye toward minimizing the effect on the new Normandy’s budget.
Besides lowering the amount of tuition it would pay to receiving districts to about $7,200 instead of what the districts had charged last year, which ranged up to near $20,000, it also limited the number of students who would be allowed to transfer.
The state transfer law – and the Missouri Supreme Court – did not give receiving districts discretion about whether they would accept students who wanted to leave Normandy. Nor did it stipulate any conditions under which an unaccredited district could limit the number of students who could transfer.
To help make sure that the new Normandy could survive financially, the state board voted that the collaborative would not be unaccredited, so the transfer law would not apply to it.
Here’s where things become murkier.
Chris Nicastro, the commissioner of elementary and secondary education, said several days before the state board meeting that the new Normandy would begin its life with no accreditation status at all. That position was echoed in a news release issued by the her department after the vote. The release said flatly:
“The new district will not have an accreditation classification for three years.”
Nicastro, in an interview with St. Louis Public Radio published on June 30, the last day of the old Normandy, did not dispute that status when asked about it. Here is the exchange:
“Should there be any restrictions at all on the ability of Normandy resident students to transfer? The relevant state law says transfers are allowed from a district ‘that does not maintain an accredited school.’ With no accreditation status at all, is the new Normandy maintaining accredited schools?
“Nicastro replied this way:
“’We certainly reviewed existing law and had pretty extensive consultation with the attorney general’s office prior to making our final recommendation to the state board. It’s very possible that this could be challenged legally, and if it is, we’re prepared to defend the decision that we’ve made.’”
That’s what the lawsuit filed on behalf of the parents argues. Attorney Joshua Schindler hit that point hard in his arguments before Burton on Wednesday, quoting the department news release and saying that DESE rules call for districts to have one of four classifications:
- accredited with distinction,
- provisionally accredited
- or unaccredited.
Instead of approving no accreditation status at all for the new Normandy, DESE says the state board designated it as being newly accredited as a state oversight district. The department says that the minutes of the meeting as posted online were incorrect, even though minutes signed by Peter Herschend, head of the board, were accurate.
When the mistake was pointed out, a teleconference of the board was called on Aug. 1 so members could vote to correct the minutes. What formerly read this way:
It was moved “to grant a waiver under Mo. Rev. Stat. Section 161.210, giving the Normandy Schools Collaborative a new school status as a state oversight district” was changed to read “to grant a waiver under Mo. Rev. Stat. Section 161.210, giving the Normandy Schools Collaborative new accreditation as a state oversight district.”
DESE officials say the vote didn’t make new policy; it just changed the minutes to reflect the policy that the board actually approved.
Margie Vandeven, a deputy commissioner at DESE, acknowledged that the words used to describe what transpired are bewildering at times, particularly the use of terms like accreditation, classification and status.
“I do see how there’s some confusion about how that was written,” she said in an interview. “We’re really trying to clarify that as we go forward.”
The real intent, she added, was to let the public know that while the new Normandy will be accredited under state oversight for as long as three years, its status will be reviewed annually, and changes could be made at any time.
But that clarification stands outside of the legal case. Because the collaborative now has accreditation as a state oversight district, Jim Layton, the attorney for the state, argued at the hearing on Wednesday that the state transfer law does not apply and the families that brought the suit should not get the court order they are seeking to force the three receiving districts to take their children.
Not surprisingly, Schindler sees more than a mere honest mistake in all of this, and if it is a mistake, he doesn’t think much of the competence of the state education officials.
In his argument filed with the court, he says that the change in the state board minutes from its June 16 meeting reveals “an underlying problem” with its actions in whether it complies with its own rules for accreditation.
“The underlying problem with the state board’s actions,” Schindler argues, “is that, if unchecked, they render the entire accreditation structure irrelevant whenever the state board takes action such as it has in this case. For all the students of NSC and any future similarly situated school district, the state board’s power to remove instantly all the protections of the accreditation statutes and rules, including the transfer statute, operates as a trap door that should not be allowed to exist.”
He challenges the board’s authority to change rules without going through an established process that has been upheld by Missouri courts, and he says the state can’t just create a distinction called accreditation as a state oversight district without going through proper procedures.
“By calling its accreditation designation either ‘state oversight district’ or ‘no accreditation status,’” Schindler’s brief argues, “the state board and DESE acknowledge that NSC does not maintain an accredited school…. All of these admissions place NSC squarely within the requirement of section 167.131.”
His language was even more colorful during oral arguments on Wednesday.
Noting how close the change in the June 16 minutes came to the date for oral arguments in the case, Schindler called the move “repugnant” and “absolutely the most bizarre thing I have ever seen.”
Branding the change in the language as “linguistical magic,” he said the actions by state education officials were undermining efforts to provide access to quality schools for students living in Normandy.
“It never occurred to me in a million years,” he said, “that the state of Missouri would argue that this change would mean it is accredited…. How do you take a district that is unaccredited and overnight call it accredited.”
What the court needs to do, he concluded, is order school districts and state board to honor the mandates of the transfer law, and do so quickly.
“Every additional day,” Schindler said, “is a day we cannot recapture for these children, and it is another lost opportunity that is unacceptable.”