JEFFERSON CITY – The Missouri State Board of Education surprised the Normandy School District Tuesday by voting to take over its finances in a bid to bolster chances that the district would get $5 million in emergency funds to help it finish the school year.
The state Board also directed the education commissioner to appoint a transition task force immediately to develop a plan for the operation of the Normandy Schools starting in July 2014, if the General Assembly fails to appropriate additional funds for the district, and if the district lapses.
The unanimous vote, which Normandy Superintendent Ty McNichols said he did not expect, comes after state education officials analyzed the district’s finances, which were termed “very, very fragile” by Ron Lankford, deputy commissioner for elementary and secondary education.
Roger Dorson, who led the team doing the financial review, said of the likelihood that the district would go bankrupt from the costs of tuition and transportation for transferring students:
“It really is not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when.”
The vote on Normandy finances came after the state board heard details of a five-tier plan designed to prevent struggling schools and districts from losing accreditation, to help unaccredited districts improve and to put chronically underachieving districts out of business. (See graphic at bottom of story.)
The program relies heavily on early intervention when districts show signs of falling short of state goals. Provisionally accredited districts would have to enter into a contract with the state Board of Education, spelling out specific goals they must meet to avoid losing unaccreditation.
On the Normandy question, Chris Nicastro, the state’s commissioner for elementary and secondary education, told the board that taking over the district’s finances was the best way to help ensure that the students now attending Normandy schools will be able to finish the year in their home district and “put to rest their anxiety about the remainder of the school year.”
The unanimous vote imposes financial oversight over Normandy effective immediately. Any spending, contracts or other actions with financial implications must be approved by state education officials for the remainder of this school year. And, Nicastro said, the vote obligates the state to take “any and all measures necessary” to make sure Normandy makes it to the end of the school year.
She said that the district has cooperated with state officials in their financial review. Normandy already has closed an elementary school and laid off more than 100 employees, but the costs of the transfer of about 1,000 students to accredited school districts is costing about $1.3 million a month — a financial drain that is unsustainable.
If necessary, Nicastro said, other “necessary and significant adjustments” to expenditures may have to be made, including more layoffs, termination of contracts or other measures. The board’s vote would give the state the power to take such actions, she said.
State board member Joe Driskill of Jefferson City asked whether Normandy had already made the decisions it should have made at this point.
“Have they done everything they could do to this point,” he asked, “or are we taking on the responsibility to make decisions they don’t want to make?”
Nicastro replied that Normandy has not made such decisions. “For many reasons,” she said, “they may or may not be prepared to make some of those tough choices.”
Interviewed after the vote, McNichols, who sat in the back of the room at the meeting, said that the board’s decision effectively means the district has lapsed because it doesn’t have any control over its finances. And he wondered, if the state doesn’t appropriate the $5 million in emergency funds, where DESE is going to come up with the money.
“Are they going to be able to cut $5 million worth of stuff?” McNichols asked. “If so, we would love to know where they’re going to cut that from.”
Asked about the implication that Normandy can’t take care of itself and needs state oversight to make the proper decisions, McNichols responded:
“I believe our community has stepped up. I think that’s why the legislators are currently considering the $5 million. I don’t think it’s because DESE’s been at the doors. I think it’s because our community has stepped up to show that they’re interested in saving the community.
“It’s not just about the Normandy board or the staff. It’s about the community at large. As go the schools, goes the community, and I think everyone has come around to support us.”
Nicastro explained that she could not give McNichols advance word about the proposal to take over Normandy’s finances because she only told the state board about it Monday night.
“It’s not my practice to share the information I’m giving to my board prior to my board getting it,” she said in an interview. “Because of the time frame of everything we’ve been doing in the last week, it’s been very difficult for us to do communication that we might otherwise do….
“It would have been inappropriate for me to talk to anyone ahead of time. In this particular case, this is a very sensitive issue and my board certainly had a right to hear it from us first and react to it first.”
Five-tier accreditation plan
The main item at Tuesday’s meeting was presentation of DESE’s plan to classify, support and intervene in Missouri’s school districts as needed. The plan was the result of several months of hearings plus consideration of proposals from a variety of education groups, districts and other interested parties.
In general, the plan provides for loose oversight for the majority of districts in the state, nearly 80 percent, which are performing satisfactorily. But if that performance deteriorates, state oversight and intervention would become increasingly more active until a district either improves or fails to the point that it lapses.
Under the plan, districts would fall into five categories, similar to what the state has now, moving from accreditation with distinction at the top down through accreditation, provisional accreditation and lack of accreditation. A fifth level added at the bottom is for districts that have lapsed despite additional support provided by the state.
Nicastro told the state board that the plan is designed to move the state’s districts into the top three tiers, where most of them are now.
“If the system works perfectly,” she told members of the state board of education, “we’ll never have another unaccredited school district.”
The plan was presented to the board and will now go out for public comment, including a hearing next Tuesday night at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.
As proposed, the plan would concentrate not on school districts, as the state does now, but on individual school buildings. Districts that have at least 75 percent of their points on their annual performance report, with no schools with less than 70 percent, would be accredited with distinction.
The next step down would be accreditation, which would include districts with less than 75 percent on their APR and/or two straight years of decline of 5 percent or more of their points, and/or a significant achievement gap. At that point, the state would begin oversight of the district to strengthen its performance and guard against further slippage.
Provisionally accredited districts would be in the third tier when their APR falls below 70 percent. At that point, special school improvement teams would be dispatched and the district would have to enter into a performance contract with the state board.
That contract would spell out specific targets and interventions that the improvement team would help the district achieve. Districts that do not improve to the standards spelled out in the contract would sink to the fourth level and become unaccredited.
At that point, the state board would review the district’s governance and determine at what point it would lapse altogether. The plan spells out three possible forms of new governance for such districts: allowing the elected board to continue under terms spelled out by the state board; replacing the elected board with a special administrative board, as now exist in St. Louis and Riverview Gardens; or replacing the elected board with a different structure, such as an administrator who reports to the commissioner of education.
Student transfers such as those from Normandy and Riverview Gardens currently would be allowed to continue from schools in the fourth tier, and existing contract may be declared void.
At the bottom rung of the new structure, districts that fail to regain accreditation would lapse altogether. At that point, the district could be restructured into one or more districts within its old boundaries, or its students could be assigned to one or more accredited districts.
In general, board members reacted favorably to the concept of early intervention into schools that are struggling. Deputy commissioner Margie Vandeven said the overall purpose of the plan is to move from diagnostic evaluation of the state’s schools to more prescriptive directives to help schools improve.
But not all of the details met with approval from the seven members of the board who questioned department officials about the plan.
Mike Jones of St. Louis, vice president of the board, began the discussion by making sure the focus is on students.
“I want to take a minute just to talk to those young people in specifically the unaccredited districts of Normandy, Riverview Gardens and Kansas City,” he said. “Over the last five or six months, a lot of the conversation has been about those specific districts.
“We have had that conversation like students in those districts were inanimate objects who could not understand what was being said. We talked about them. We talked at them. We have never spoken to them…. My point is that they have not failed. There is a state full of adults who have failed them.”
Board President Peter Herschend of Branson talked of what he called “the 600-pound gorilla” in the room – how the state manages unaccredited districts and the law that allows students who live in them to transfer elsewhere.
“Obviously,” he said, “the two run parallel tracks. One impacts the other. But we are an organization devoted to education. We are not an organization devoted to transfers.”
Driskill wanted to make sure that any contracts between struggling districts and the state board had real sanctions, so that a failure to maintain adequate levels of achievement would have real consequences.
Otherwise, he said, “I think we all can be accused of kicking the can down the road here.”
Jones said that when districts are in provisional accreditation territory, the message should be clear.
“What we’re talking about,” he said, “is either you win or go home…. Your last opportunity to be in control is right here.”
He summed things up this way: “Either the change works, or we become the change.”
Vandeven said the state resisted recommendations that it alter its school evaluation system, known as MSIP5, which has only been in place for one school year. But, she said, the plan is designed to help meet the department’s goal that every child in Missouri have access to a good school.
Nicastro said that in her talks with students, they share that goal.
“Kids are really smart,” she said. “They figure things out pretty quickly. They figure out how to work the system, whatever the system is. I think one of our challenges is that we design a system that supports them.”
In an interview, Herschend put it this way:
“We have a responsibility, both constitutional and moral in this state, to ensure educational success for our kids. And when you have consistent failure, as we have had in Normandy and a few other districts, then it’s time we have the responsibility to step in and act. Not to take over the district – that’s not the objective – but to get those kids into an education system that is actually producing results for them.”