After complaints from teachers and others about how the initial year of the Normandy Schools Collaborative has gone so far, the state board of education wants to give more authority to the local appointed board.
In a letter Thursday from Peter Herschend, head of the state board, to Charles Pearson, president of the Joint Executive Governing Board that was named in the summer, the state board said it wanted to give final authority for evaluating, hiring and disciplining personnel to the appointed board. It also wants the local board to take responsibility for Normandy's achieving academic achievement goals set out in its accountability plan that the state board approved last month. The district’s academic performance this year was the worst in the state.
“Though the State Board of Education remains responsible for the NSC,” Herschend wrote, “the JEGB has earned our trust. While we will afford you operational authority, the State Board of Education will continue to hold you accountable for improved performance.”
Personnel from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education have been helping to monitor academics and other performance areas in Normandy since the old district was dissolved June 30 and replaced the next day by the Normandy Schools Collaborative. The state board had taken over finances for the district earlier in the year.
In his letter, Herschend told Pearson:
“While decision-making will rest with the JEGB, the department will continue to provide financial oversight. This is consistent with department practice for all districts in financial stress.”
The letter asked Pearson and his four fellow local board members to respond to the proposal by Nov. 24. The state board is expected to take final action at its meeting in Branson in December.
Herschend’s letter concluded:
“We are confident that you can and will succeed. The department will continue to provide support and assistance as you request, but will defer decision-making to the JEGB and the NSC administration. These changes should provide more clarity, better communication and greater collaboration between and among all parties. Together, we must make this work for the children and families of the Normandy community.”
The move by the state board comes after concerns about operations of the new Normandy schools. At a recent JEGB meeting, when Pearson asked the audience whether things were better this year than last, the audience responded with a resounding no. And a teacher who wanted to remain anonymous recently detailed complaints to St. Louis Public Radio about a lack of support from DESE and a sense that though the state is nominally in charge, it wasn’t following through on plans and mandates made for the district.
In an interview Thursday, education Commissioner Chris Nicastro said that the state was trying to put a new model in place in Normandy on a tight timeline.
“We knew all along,” she said, “that we were going to have to be very nimble and very flexible in how we operated, meaning that you have to monitor frequently and you have to make adjustments as you go.”
After several weeks of classes, Nicastro said, it was clear that changes were needed.
“Teachers need more support,” she said. ”There are some problems with instructional materials. Some of the personnel decisions need to be made much more quickly. Discipline's a problem.
“All of those things are operational and administrative decisions that really need to be made at the local level. As much as the department tries to provide support and assistance, we can't make those kinds of operational decisions effectively from Jefferson City, and I'm not sure we should.”
She said that when members of the local appointed board sat down with members of the state board in Jefferson City last week, the face-to-face meeting was helpful in coming up with a new division of responsibilities.
“Our board came away from that meeting feeling very confident about the leadership of the governing board and the people who are serving on that governing board,” Nicastro said.
She recalled a statement made by Mike Jones of St. Louis, vice president of the state board, when he swore in members of the JEGB during the summer.
“He made the statement that if we get in your way, you need to let us know,” Nicastro said. “So I think the state board’s intention was always for this to be a transition year, and for the governing board to assume greater and greater responsibility as the year went along.
“It was hard to say up front how long that transition would take, because none of us really had any ideas about how it's going to work, how the group was going to come together, what kind of hurdles they would have and so forth. Certainly the individuals who are on the governing board have proven to be extraordinarily responsible and serious-minded folks who work very well together.”
Nicastro noted that the decision by Gov. Jay Nixon to veto an education bill approved by the General Assembly, and a judge’s ruling that permitted more Normandy students to transfer to accredited districts, have put more pressure on the new state-controlled district. With Normandy’s academic achievement numbers so low this year, pressure is on to show improvement.
“Essentially what you're engaged in is a race to see if you can improve the district enough to regain public support and demonstrate adequate performance before they go broke,” she said. “That kind of time constraint certainly puts a tremendous amount of pressure on everybody -- not the least of which are the kids and the teachers and the parents and the others in those communities that are impacted.”
She noted that the accountability plan sets specific benchmarks for academic improvement, and she thinks they are realistic.
“With the right kind of programming and the right kind of administration,” Nicastro said, “I believe they can make the kind of improvements that we're looking for. It's doable. It's just going to take very concerted effort and careful oversight.”
With less than two months to go before she retires from her post, what role will Nicastro play after the first of the year?
“I've devoted almost 30 years of my life to working on issues related to quality education for children in north St. Louis County,” she said, “and that's not going to change. My goal in taking this job and doing everything I've always done has been to make sure that every kid had a good school to go to and that commitment is going to remain.
“I don't know what I'm going to be doing along those lines. But I would suspect something.”