Updated 5:35 p.m. Tues, Feb. 25, with response from Humphrey:
Terry Artis, an outspoken member of the Normandy School District, says voters should oust three of his incumbent colleagues at the April 8 elections because they are not working in the best interests of the district.
Artis has voted against having Normandy pay the tuition and transportation bills for students who transfer out of the district. He told St. Louis Public Radio and the Beacon in an interview Tuesday that incumbents William Humphrey, Jeanette Pulliam and Henry Watts should be defeated in April.
“I need the community to be clear to not give your vote to any of the top three,” he said, noting the position of the incumbents on the ballot. “If they take any of the four on the lower end of the ballot, they’re doing themselves a great service for the future.”
Artis did not specify which of the four challengers on the ballot – Dryver Henderson, John Phillips, Gwendolyn Buggs or Sharon Owens-Hare -- he would prefer to serve with him on the board. His main interest, he said, was to get colleagues that he feels can help the struggling district survive and thrive.
“I haven’t been able to get the others to go along in the best interest of the community,” Artis said, “so I too am a failure as far as I’m concerned. I need to be accountable to the community, and so does everyone else.”
Last week in Jefferson City, the state board of education voted to allow the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to take over Normandy’s finances, effective immediately. The district is in danger of going broke in April because of the financial strain of the transfers.
Chris Nicastro, commissioner of education, has said that the state financial takeover will ensure that Normandy students can stay in their district until the end of the school year.
But the vote by the state board did not sit well with Artis, who said that he hasn’t found any law that would authorize such a takeover.
“I believe what they have done is not even constitutional,” he said.
Lawmakers are considering a $5 million emergency appropriation to help the district finish the school year. Even if Normandy does survive, Artis said, the prospect of it lapsing after that point pushed him to go public with his dissatisfaction with his fellow board members.
“That took me to thinking it’s a good time to take this step,” he said, “to try to get the public to do what is in the district’s interest, regardless of what DESE does, regardless of what the governor does, regardless of what the state school board does. What we do is going to be paramount.”
Artis, who was elected to a three-year term on the board last year, said he has not spoken with other members since the state board’s action last week and does not expect to see them until the board meets Thursday night. He said the board has discussed in closed session possible legal action Normandy could take in its current situation, but he declined to give details.
He hopes that come July 1, the district is still operating, the drain of finances for tuition and transportation is stemmed and Normandy is more stable.
“If that’s not the situation,” he added, “then at that time we need to start hitting the streets and educating people on what steps we have to take to make this situation right. I’m going to continue working no matter what, until it’s time for me to be re-elected.
“I’ll keep on being vocal on my position, which I feel is in the best interests of the constituents of Normandy.”
Asked to respond to Artis’ position, Pulliam said there had been no friction between them. She would added: “I’m just sorry he feels that. But I have no more reaction.”
In an email, Humphrey wrote:
"While I support Mr. Artis's right to his opinion. I do not agree with the underlying premises or ascertions that he makes.
"The voters are astute enough to review and make the appropriate decisions based on the work done by this board and the incumbents."
In a statement issued by the district, Humphrey added:
"In light of the many challenges the board and the school district has faced this school year, his suggestion is causing an unnecessary distraction to the work that we are trying to accomplish."
Watts did not respond to a request for comment.
More details on state move
Meanwhile, education commissioner Chris Nicastro has provided a few more details about how state education officials plan to proceed in the wake of last week’s vote by the state board. In addition to giving DESE authority over Normandy’s finances, it also directed the appointment of a transition team to map out how the district’s future might proceed.
She acknowledged that what lies ahead is murky at this point.
“We’re working closely with the legislature right now to figure out what that transition might look like,” she said in a recent interview. “There’s a number of bills that are pending, and the last thing we want to do is get too far ahead of the legislature. But having said that, we also know that the legislative process takes a long time, and until May we won’t know for certain what the legislature is able to do and what that might look like.
“We have learned from past experience that it takes some time to transition from one form of governance to another or from one circumstance to another. So whatever’s going to happen in Normandy after July 1, we need to start figuring that out now. We know whether they go broke in April or May or at the end of June, that unless something significant changes, they will in fact be financially insolvent by the end of the year. So that means that July 1, something else is going to happen, and we’re going to try to start planning for what that might be.”
One big question is what happens to the money that Normandy now receives to educate its students and the taxes that residents of the district pay. If the district lapses, the transfer option would likely disappear as well.
“Once the district goes away,” Nicastro said, “then conceivably there would be no continued outflow of money. So they would receive the local, state and federal revenue that they get now, without that expenditure going out of the district. You’re still going to have children, you’re still going to have schools, and you’re still going to have some revenue coming into the district. So the question is how do you deal with that?”
When the Wellston school district lapsed in 2010 and was absorbed by Normandy, Nicastro noted, Wellston taxpayers began paying at the Normandy rate. But handling the possible dissolution of Normandy may be more complicated, she said.
“The state board could decide to divide up the district,” she said, “in which case the children are assigned and the state and federal money associated with those kids goes to the new district. The entire district could be affixed to another, and the same thing would happen. All the tax revenue would follow the children.
“If we do something different, which is what we’re working on developing a plan for, then the tax money conceivably could stay there with the schools, and it just depends on how we can get to that, and what that might look like.”
If the legislature does not approve the $5 million to help Normandy reach the end of the year, it will be up to state officials to find the money within the district’s budget, Nicastro said.
“If it appears that we’re going to run out of money,” she said, “then we’ll have to stop spending money on something immediately to make up the difference. Whatever they’re spending money on now would be subject to review, and I would say some of the services that they’re providing now, some of the things they’re spending money on now could simply go away before the end of the year.
“The thing that will be of the highest priority, of course, will be keeping teachers in classrooms.”
Such an emphasis on instruction and on students is too often lost in the political and financial maneuvering that has dominated the news of late, Nicastro said. But it has to remain her top priority.
“We’re focused on kids,” she said. “We want kids to have good schools where they live. Whether that’s a charter or a traditional public school or something that we haven’t done yet, I don’t think that the department or the state board is concerned about that. As long as it’s quality and as long as it serves children, that’s our goal.”