A St. Louis County Circuit judge ruled Friday that students from three families living in the Normandy school district have the right to transfer to nearby accredited districts.
Those districts – Pattonville, Ritenour and Ferguson-Florissant – had denied the students access in the new school year, even though they had transferred to schools in those districts in the last school year. But the families argued successfully that the state had improperly given the new Normandy Schools Collaborative a status that freed it from the requirements of the Missouri transfer law.
Judge Michael Burton’s ruling said the state board of education improperly changed Normandy’s status to accredited as a state oversight district because it did not follow the rules required to make the change.
Therefore, he said, the students should be allowed to go back to their schools from last year to avoid an inadequate education.
“Sadly,” Burton wrote, “the evidence is crystal clear that the students will suffer if their request is not granted. Every day a student attends an unaccredited school (instead of an accredited one) he/she could suffer harm that cannot be repaired after the fact.
“A school accreditation structure obviously recognizes that accredited schools are better for students than non-accredited schools. By enacting the transfer statute, the people of Missouri, through their legislature and the governor, recognized that leaving children in unaccredited school districts with no option to transfer from these districts, is harmful to those children.”
Reacting to the ruling, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, which now oversees the operation of the new Normandy Schools Collaborative, released this statement:
The Department and State Board of Education will have to evaluate and determine what options exist for the future of the children in Normandy. If student transfers continue as they did last year, it is clear that the Normandy Schools Collaborative will not have sufficient funds to finish the 2014-15 school year.
The State Board took action in Normandy after hearing from hundreds of Normandy residents, parents and students asking for Normandy schools to remain open. The community wants high quality schools in their neighborhoods, and the Department was prepared to do the hard work to help them achieve that goal. The leadership of the district and the state have worked together to make significant changes in curriculum, educator training and evaluation, and personnel.
Normandy ended the 2013-14 school year with only $1.5 million in operating funds after starting the year with about $9.6 million in reserves. Had the district not cut staff and closed an elementary school at mid-year, they would have ended with an approximate $2 million deficit.
State Board members and Department staff will keep the children at the forefront of all decisions.”
Classes in the Normandy Schools Collaborative are set to begin on Monday.
Ritenour issued this response:
"The difficult decision to end the transfer process in the Ritenour was reached based on long-standing district policy that clearly defines admission of non-resident students.
"Ritenour respects the ruling of the court and will abide by the judge’s ruling. Our district will follow the guidelines established in the judgment. The students included in the lawsuit will be greeted warmly and welcomed into our schools. We will communicate with the families quickly in order to enroll them into the Ritenour School District."
In a statement, Pattonville responded to the suit this way:
"Pattonville will comply with the court ruling and will be reviewing that decision over the next several days to determine its impact."
And Francis Howell said:
"The Francis Howell School District will continue to follow the law and will comply with the court's recent decision. Our staff will be touch with the Normandy Schools Collaborative to make necessary preparations for the student to enroll in one of our schools."
No magic wands
Joshua Schindler, attorney for the plaintiff families, had argued during a trial last week that the state board had improperly reclassified Normandy as accredited as a state oversight district.
The effect of that decision was to exempt the district from the requirements of the state transfer law. That law, which has been upheld twice by the Missouri Supreme Court, says students who live in unaccredited districts have the right to transfer to nearby accredited schools, with their home district paying tuition and in some cases transportation as well.
The change in Normandy’s accreditation was made formal in an Aug. 1 board meeting where minutes from a meeting in June were changed to clarify the district’s new status. At the trial, Schindler branded that move “linguistical magic.”
After Burton’s ruling was released late Friday, Schindler said he was glad the judge recognized that the evidence showed the transfers should continue.
“It was pretty clear,” he said, “that the board really didn’t understand the fact that they could not in good conscience accredit Normandy and they couldn’t wave a magic wand and cure the ills of Normandy overnight.”
While the ruling applies directly only to the students whose families brought the suit, Schindler said that he hopes all parties involved will stop any legal action that blocks transfers.
“As a practical matter,” he said, “I think it should be a clear signal to the state board and to DESE that they immediately should reverse their policy and that all kids who want to transfer out of Normandy should be allowed to transfer out of Normandy….
“At this point, a further appeal or a continuation of litigation is only going to further undermine the credibility of the state board and of DESE. I think it’s time we start allowing these transfers to happen, make the necessary cuts to help Normandy financially continue and that they should no longer spend precious resources litigating an obvious loser. The money that they continue to spend on lawyers is money that should be spent on children.”
An 'abysmal' record
Burton ruled that the state board did not follow proper procedure in making the change to Normandy’s status. He added that because of the harm students would go through if they could not transfer, he was issuing the court order sought by Schindler so the students could transfer to the schools they attended last year.
“Because those districts ably accepted transfer students in the 2013-14 school year,” Burton wrote, “this court can safely assume that they would be able to accept transfer students in the 2014-15 school year.”
He acknowledged the financial drain that the transfers put on Normandy this past year. But, he added, the district has not shown how much money it would lose or how many students would be likely to transfer.
“This court is aware of the potential significant effect on the NSC’s budget,” he said. “This court, however, finds that the direct and immediate harm in preventing the student plaintiffs from transferring to accredited schools outweighs any speculative financial harm to the Normandy Schools Collaborative.”
The poor academic record of Normandy, Burton added, and the superior education that students who transfer can obtain, are clear for anyone to see.
“None of the parties questions the state board’s decision to give the Normandy School District an ‘unaccredited” classification,’” he said. “The Normandy School District’s last performance rating, under the Missouri accreditation standards, was an abysmal 11 percent. There was no evidence presented to suggest that this rating has significantly improved since September 18, 2012, the date when the state board classified the Normandy School District as ‘unaccredited.’
“Certainly, the ratings of the accredited Pattonville, Ritenour and Francis Howell School Districts surpass those in the NSC – and significantly so.”
'It's a great feeling'
Parents whose children will be able to transfer because of the suit were overjoyed at the news.
Sharandra Card, whose two children wanted to be able to return to school in Ritenour, said, “They can’t stop jumping around. It is great.”
She said the tutoring programs and other help available to them was much better than what they could get in Normandy.
“It’s a great feeling that my kids are going to be able to go to a school that they love and they’re going to get the right education that they deserve,” she said.
While Card said she would have signed her kids up to enroll at Normandy if the ruling had been delayed any longer, Karl Gray said he would have sought other options, including possibly home schooling, for his son rather than having him go to Normandy if he was not allowed to return to Pattonville.
“It was excellent,” he said of his son’s experience in classes last year. “I just liked the fact of the teachers and the whole staff at the school that he was at. I really loved that.”
After Burton’s ruling, Gray added, “I hope that anybody else that would like to transfer out, I would hope they would have the opportunity to transfer out as well.”