This article originally appeared in the St. Louis Beacon. - Two high-profile education stories will be in the spotlight Wednesday night.
In Normandy, the school board will once again decide whether to pay tuition bills to local districts that have accepted students who have transferred to attend nearby accredited schools.
In Ferguson-Florissant, the school board will be holding its first meeting since it voted last week in closed session to place Superintendent Art McCoy on administrative leave with pay over what was termed "differences in focus and philosophy.”
Both issues have prompted speculation and discussion.
In Normandy, state education officials have made clear that if the district does not approve the tuition bills from other districts, once the bills are 60 days overdue money that would have been sent from Jefferson City to Normandy would be sent directly to the receiving districts instead.
The Normandy board has already partially reversed last month’s vote against paying bills. It took another vote and approved $108,635 in transportation bills for Normandy students attending Francis Howell schools in St. Charles County. Howell is the one district that Normandy designated to which it would pay transportation.
Explaining their reversal, board members said that they had voted to enter into a contract with First Student bus company to transport the transfer students; they did not think that they could fail to live up to the terms of the agreement. They emphasized that they had taken part in the arrangement voluntarily, as opposed to having the transfer tuition bills forced on them by state law.
Board members did not explain how they made a distinction between a contractual obligation and a legal one.
At issue are bills from 17 receiving districts for more than $1.3 million in tuition. The largest bill is from Howell, for more than $500,000; bills for more than $100,000 were submitted by Ferguson-Florissant, Ladue and University City.
The Normandy board is also expected to finalize the list of 103 teachers and other staff members who will be laid off at the end of this semester. The move is expected to save the district between $1 million and $1.3 million this year. The district is also closing Bel-Nor Elementary School.
Normandy hopes that cost-saving moves, plus a request by the state school board for $6.8 million in additional state aid, will let the district survive financially. Without the extra money, officials have said the Normandy will go broke in the spring.
Ferguson-Florissant meeting moved to larger space
In Ferguson-Florissant, the decision to place McCoy on leave sparked surprised reaction and speculation. Board members have been hesitant to give any details about the decision, citing the confidentiality that typically surrounds a personnel decision.
But Paul Morris, head of the board, told the Beacon Tuesday that the move was not based on McCoy’s active role in recruiting transfer students from Normandy and Riverview Gardens, as some have wondered, or on racial factors, as several people who took part in a news conference Friday alleged. Some said that if McCoy is not reinstated, they plan to file a civil rights complaint with federal agencies.
McCoy is African-American, as is 78 percent of the district’s student body. All seven members of the Ferguson-Florissant school board are white.
McCoy has been superintendent in Ferguson-Florissant since 2011. His contract was renewed in April of this year, to run through June 30, 2016. His current salary is $217,644.
Originally, Morris told the Beacon that if McCoy were not to return, contractually he would be entitled to about $500,000 in salary, then added:
“The contracts are such that if he goes to work for another district, then he would have to resign his position, so the district wouldn’t be on the hook for all of that. But we’re not at that point yet.”
But Wednesday, after reviewing McCoy's contract, he changed his opinion. In an email, he wrote: "Should the Board decide to part ways with Dr. McCoy, which has not yet been decided, the contract only allows for termination, for cause, or buying out the remainder of the contract."
Tuesday night, a letter from Morris to Ferguson-Florissant residents was posted on the district's website, trying to respond to some of the issues surrounding the McCoy situation.
In it, Morris said:
"We want to assure our community that this decision was not made lightly. Over the past several months, the Board has attempted to resolve issues with Dr. McCoy and we regret the need to take this action at this time."
The letter went on to say:
"We recognize and are grateful for the contributions Dr. McCoy has made to the Ferguson-Florissant School District. However, our concerns regarding compliance with board directives are significant enough to warrant action.
"We understand that it is frustrating for our community not to know all of the specifics of this situation. We are very sorry that additional details cannot be disclosed to answer all of the questions that have been raised. However, just as in all personnel matters, the reasons for the action we have taken are kept confidential in the interest of maintaining employee privacy. We are bound as members of the board to uphold the policies of the Ferguson-Florissant School District at all times.
"We take very seriously the concerns expressed by some members of our community that this move was in any way racially motivated. Let me be perfectly clear: The races of the board or of Dr. McCoy played absolutely no role in this decision. As reflected by our board goals, we have a strong commitment to diversity and equity. We have met with the St. Louis County NAACP, North County Churches Uniting for Racial Harmony & Justice and County Executive Charlie Dooley to discuss these concerns.
"As elected members of the Board of Education, it is our job to make sometimes very difficult decisions that are in the best interest of our students and we feel that we have upheld our responsibility in this case. We hope to resolve this matter soon, and ensure that the students of the Ferguson-Florissant School District continue to receive the high-quality education that they deserve and help them succeed in life."
In the earlier interview, Morris said he could not be more specific about the reasons for the board’s decision, but he wondered about the statements from others.
“My problem with people talking other than the board,” he said, “is that they don’t have any information. What are they basing these accusations on?”
Morris said the reaction to the decision to place McCoy on leave hasn’t surprised him at all, either in its volume or its tone.
“We as a board were fully prepared to stand by our decision,” he said. “We knew there would be reaction to this, and we’re not surprised.”
In preparation for what Morris expects will be a large crowd at the board meeting Wednesday night, he said the session has been moved to a larger location and the agenda has been shortened to give as many people as possible the chance to have their say.
The vote to place McCoy on leave was 6-1, with only board member Paul Schroeder voting against the move. Schroeder told the Beacon that while he couldn’t discuss the personnel aspect, he did praise McCoy’s leadership.
“His personal story is pretty compelling for our children,” Schroeder said. “It tells our kids there are good possibilities for him.”