Before he gave the oath of office to the five appointed members of the new board of the Normandy Schools Collaborative Tuesday, state school board vice president Mike Jones also gave them some advice.
First, he told them that what they are doing is not community service, it is public service.
“The community is always grateful for your service,” Jones said. “The public always is not.”
Then, he noted that while the Missouri state school board may have confirmed their appointments, the big job ahead is theirs.
“The state board of education may own the railroad,” he said, “but this is your train, and you have the responsibility of getting it to its destination.”
That destination, in case anyone didn’t know, is to regain accreditation for Normandy. Losing that accreditation made the district subject to student transfers that brought it to the brink of bankruptcy and prompted the state to first take over its finances, then take over the schools altogether.
As of midnight Monday, the old Normandy school district disappeared, along with the contracts of all of its employees. At its first meeting Tuesday, in front of a packed room at the district’s headquarters, the new board dealt primarily with housekeeping issues – policies and procedures, meeting schedules and seeking legal representation.
But members clearly had the big picture in mind. Sheila Williams, a former member of the elected board who was confirmed for the appointed board at a meeting Monday, put it this way in an interview after the public session of the meeting adjourned:
“I am looking at this as a reset for the district. I’m looking at it as an opportunity to effect really deep change in our school district. It’s not just a change in name or a change in personnel or a change in strategy, but rather a deep change that really means that we are altering our paradigm, our expectations and our culture," Williams said.
Unlike the last few meetings of the elected board, where the audience was sparse, Tuesday’s meeting of the appointed board played out in front of a standing-room crowd, including many members of the staff of the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. Also in the crowd were members of the elected board whose authority ended Monday night and at least one lawmaker, Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal, who was carrying a large cutout of the face of Gov. Jay Nixon. She has sharply criticized Nixon for vetoing a wide-ranging school transfer bill that she worked on.
The board set its next meetings for this coming Monday and July 16, both at 6 p.m. at the district's headquarters.
State Education Commissioner Chris Nicastro said she had met with Superintendent Ty McNichols before the public meeting to show that the “department and the Normandy Schools Collaborative staff will work together in concert and create what is truly an historic opportunity for the children in this community. Every single one of us is determined to make this a new day.”
She told reporters after the meeting that her department will play an active role in the operation of Normandy.
“We will continue to be present and supportive,” Nicastro said. “We will have a full-time transition officer here on site who will work day by day hand in hand with Dr. McNichols and his staff. So their presence is going to be pronounced through this year.
“As the staff here in Normandy become more comfortable and we get through this transition period, we will be deferring to their judgment just as you saw today.”
McNichols stressed the importance of working not only with DESE but with area lawmakers and community leaders on issues of education but also those of so-called wraparound services, such as health care.
Board member Reginald Dickson said he wants to work to determine what makes students want to learn, then work to make sure those incentives are there.
“That should be our mantra in regards to those things that incentivize students,” he said. “I think there is a big disconnect on that throughout the educational system.”
And McNichols said parental involvement will be a big part of the district’s success.
“I think that we have some things to start with,” he said, “but we have to refine them and eliminate anything that is a distraction.”
Williams said that the board has to make sure to give students and families reasons to leave the underachieving past behind, and she wants to make sure the district's teaching staff is willing to go along with the new Normandy strategy.
“If they don’t want to change,” she said, “change isn’t going to happen.”
Which leads to Jones’ final words of advice to the new board members.
Listen to all the advice that is offered, he said, and accept help that sometimes comes from unexpected sources.
“Have the courage to say yes to ideas that are outside the box,” Jones said, “and have the courage to say no to all the help that is not useful to your mission.”
Above all, he concluded, board members need to listen to their conscience.
“Pay close attention to it,” Jones said, “and if you do, you’ll be able to sleep better at night and look at yourself in the morning.”