Elected Board Members Criticize State Takeover
Updated 2:23 p.m. Friday with DESE response on payment of tuition
Members of the elected Normandy school board may soon be out of a job, but they made clear Thursday night they don’t plan to go quietly.
In their first meeting since the state board of education voted last week to dissolve Normandy as of June 30 and replace it with a new entity run by an appointed board, elected board members discussed routine business, voted to table payment of March tuition payments for transfer students, then unloaded their frustrations on the process that could mean the end of the current district.
William Humphrey, president of the board, echoed the sentiments of his six colleagues when he criticized the way state education officials treated the district and the community it serves.
“To me,” he said, “a community must be communicated with and treated in a way so that it believes it is respected. I don’t think through this process this has occurred.”
Saying that the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and the state board have shown a “callous disregard for this school board” and the community, Humphrey added:
“I find this to be reprehensible. I find this to be unconscionable.”
Many parts of the district’s future remain unclear. Members of the new governing board have not been named; nor has its size been determined, or whether it will include members of the elected board. All current contracts for Normandy personnel, including Superintendent Ty McNichols, will lapse at the end of June, so no teachers will be under contract for the coming school year.
The district’s accreditation status is also undetermined, so students who this year were eligible to transfer to neighboring districts because Normandy is unaccredited don’t know whether that option will be open to them when the new school year begins.
All of those issues are expected to be cleared up when the state board meets June 16-17 in Jefferson City.
After the state board voted to lapse the district, the Normandy school board countered with a lawsuit that not only tries to stop that action but challenges the school transfer law that led to the district’s financial problems. DESE in turn said it would not release funds to pay for the suit; the state board put Normandy’s finances in the hands of education officials earlier this year.
In an interview after the meeting, Humphrey would not comment on the timing or reasoning behind the suit. But board members clearly had their minds on the district’s finances.
When bills in the amount of $784,128.57 for tuition for transfer students for the month of March were presented for approval, board member Nancy Hartman moved that the issue be tabled.
“We don’t know if we’re going to be financially able to remain alive,” she said, explaining the move. “Until we know that, until we know questions about our financial status have been settled, it’s not proper for us to vote on this motion (to approve the bills).”
Her motion to table the issue passed unanimously.
The vote echoed action earlier in the school year when the board voted in October to withhold payment of transfer students’ tuition. That vote was later reversed after state officials said if Normandy didn’t pay the bills, its state money would be redirected to the districts that enrolled the transfer students.
Asked to react to the board's vote to table payment of the tuition bills, DESE released a statement Friday from Ron Lankford, deputy commissioner of financial and administrative services, that said:
"The department continues to work with the Normandy district to ensure that all tuition bills are paid by June 30. Receiving districts were notified yesterday by the Normandy School District to have their final invoices submitted by June 18."
Thursday night's board meeting was attended by only a handful of people who are not directly involved with the district.
A lack of communication
After the board’s regular agenda was completed, Humphrey said board members were welcome to comment on the district’s situation.
He started off by saying that he appreciated the time and effort members of the Normandy transition task force have put in, volunteering their time just as members of the Normandy board do.
But, Humphrey added, he did not appreciate the way the district’s community has been treated as state education officials worked toward the decision made by the state board last week.
“We’ve had a process that has not been very forthright in communication with out community,” he said.
“As we look at a transition of some sort from where we are to a different place, I would ask those who are in a position to make a difference to understand it is important to communicate with our constituents. They failed miserably in this regard. To disregard the community in a way that this one has been disregarded is unacceptable on every level.”
Humphrey said that when DESE conducted public hearings in the district, the views of the public were not heeded.
“It’s been more of a monologue, not a dialogue,” he said, adding:
“It really boils down to disenfranchising this community.”
In an interview after the meeting, Humphrey said that it was clear that the public wanted to retain control of the schools.
“And obviously,” he added, “the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education was not listening, because they did just the opposite of what the people asked for ...
“So for me that is a concern, when you have individuals coming into a community and to basically hijack an educational system without a community voice. I find that to be very reprehensible and unconscionable. It’s just something I believe shouldn’t have been happening.”
Hartman read from a Post-Dispatch op-ed piece that appeared earlier this week, agreeing with its premise that the tests used to gauge Normandy students’ academic achievement discriminate against poor, black students. She noted the piece’s conclusion that this is a “racially tinged class struggle.”
Board member Jeanette Pulliam said that she may not give up her seat no matter what the state decides because of the way officials have gone about things.
“If they had come to us with a straight face, not lying, not two-faced, not trying to be sneaky, I would have gone willingly,” she said. “They have lied. They have tried to sneak around…. They have had meetings behind our backs.”
And board member Terry Artis, who has consistently voiced dissatisfaction with the transfer program and its financial impact on the district, said the problem stems from the fact that the state tests Normandy students in ways that don’t truly judge their ability.
“They are judging our fish by how well they climb a tree,” he said.