Updated at 10:26 a.m. Thursday, Feb. 20, with Nicastro letter.
News that state education officials have taken control of the finances of the Normandy School District was still sinking in Wednesday, but local board members who were willing to comment were clearly unhappy about losing the power of the purse.
With the district facing possible bankruptcy in April because of the budget burden of 1,000 students transferring to nearby accredited districts, the state board of education voted Tuesday to take over any action “with fiscal implications” in Normandy, including spending, contracts and other financial obligations.
State education officials said the goal of the move was to reassure Normandy students and their families “that they will be able to complete their school year in their current location. Current seniors, who otherwise qualify to graduate under local and state requirements, will graduate this year as scheduled from Normandy.”
In an email to the Normandy district community Tuesday night, Superintendent Ty McNichols said the vote by the state board "means that the Normandy School District Board of Education will vote on monthly expenditures and DESE will then provide final approval." But a spokeswoman for the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education said that the department would be able to act without prior approval of issues by the locally elected board.
The state board also directed Chris Nicastro, Missouri’s commissioner of elementary and secondary education, to appoint a transition task force to “develop a detailed plan for the operation of the Normandy schools starting in July 2014” in case the district goes out of business.
DESE said the task force would be put together immediately. It would consist of “representatives of the Normandy and the extended community including parents, local officials, existing partners and others.”
On Thursday, Nicastro sent a letter to Normandy students and their parents or guardians, trying to calm their worries about one of their most pressing concerns:
"We know," she wrote, "that you have been under significant stress in recent months, concerned about the future of your schools. While the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education is not able to address all of the issues which have created this problem, we can and will address at least one.
"Your school will remain open through the remainder of the year. If you are scheduled to graduate from Normandy this year, and you meet all state and district requirements for graduation, you will graduate as scheduled."
But such sentiment failed to reassure board members about their role in the district's future. Asked how he felt about the trade-off of control over finances in return for improved chances for the district’s survival, Normandy board member Henry Watts said he welcomes the opportunity to help Normandy avoid dissolution.
But, he added in an interview, he did not agree with the view of some state board members that the Normandy community has not stepped up to support its schools.
“Bottom line is that we want the district to survive,” Watts said. “But when you put stipulations on how that district should survive when it has no merit to it, we have to sit down and talk about it.
“But we want the district to survive. If the district doesn’t survive, the community will cease to exist.”
State officials say Normandy needs $5 million to make it to the end of the school year. Gov. Jay Nixon included the money in his budget request, and the House Appropriations Committee kept the sum in the supplemental budget bill it sent to the full House Tuesday night.
But state Rep. Rick Stream, R-Kirkwood, who heads the committee, has made it clear that the money is not likely to win legislative approval if it would be spent by the locally elected Normandy board. Instead, he wanted control of the funds to be in the hands of DESE or a special administrative board appointed by the state to run Normandy.
Stream has also filed a bill on the student transfer issue that could help Normandy recoup some of the estimated $1.3 million it has been spending each month on tuition and transportation for students who have left the district. It would put a cap on the amount of money receiving districts could charge and force repayment to Normandy of any money over the limit that has been paid out this school year.
Transfer law drained Normandy budget
Even if Normandy gets enough money to finish out the school year, its prospects beyond that point are murky. They will depend in large part on whatever changes that lawmakers might make in the law that lets students living in unaccredited school districts enroll in accredited schools, with their home district paying tuition and in some cases transportation as well. Several bills on the topic have been introduced, in both chambers of the legislature.
Watts, one of three members seeking to stay on the Normandy board in the April 8 election, said the district had been solvent before taking a big financial hit from the transfers. He said he wasn’t sure why the takeover deal was conceived in what he called “smoky back rooms,” but he wasn’t happy about it.
“Normandy has always, I repeat always, been solvent,” Watts said. “Financially, there has never been an issue with Normandy or the board. I don’t know if they needed a scapegoat.”
He said that concerns that the community doesn’t support Normandy schools are unfounded, pointing to the 24:1 initiative spearheaded by the group Beyond Housing. It refers to the fact that the district is made up of 24 separate communities that have been working together to help bolster the schools.
“I’ve been in this community since 1985, and that is so far from the truth,” Watts said of opinions about the lack of community support for Normandy schools.
“It doesn’t surprise me coming from someone who doesn’t live in the community. But the community as a whole supports the Normandy school district, period. I’m not saying 100 percent, because there are always outliers in everything you do. But the majority, in the 90th percentile, supports this school district.”
Watts said he has two daughters who went through the district and a grandson who is there now. He said that McNichols, who took over as superintendent on July 1, has a solid plan to improve the district’s accreditation score, and the state should give the district time to let his vision come true.
“We need to tell them our story,” Watts said. “We want a strong school. I believe that with Dr. McNichols in place, we have the right plan. We just need time to let the plan work.”
But Dryver Henderson, a Normandy graduate and school board challenger who has led a citizens group opposed to the current leadership, welcomed the state’s financial takeover.
“It was an intelligent move,” he said in an interview. “Late, maybe. DESE could have acted in different ways earlier. But at this point, it was an intelligent, well presented, good idea. It provides a kind of safety net for Normandy in either of two ways.
“I think this will encourage the legislature to release the $5 million which Normandy needs and should have and allays the skepticism that the current Normandy board couldn’t handle the money or doesn’t deserve having their record of failure being rewarded with another gift which they could perhaps misuse.
“Additionally, they’re on the line for making up whatever shortfall could exist if the legislature doesn’t, at least to get us through until July 1.”
He disputes Watts’ contention that the community has been actively supporting the school district.
“It’s a disappointment,” Henderson said. “But it’s accurate. The community is confused. The community is divided. The public is not educated enough to know the whole truth."
Most Normandy board members did not return calls seeking comment on the state action, and besides Watts, those that could be reached were reluctant to talk until they could reflect more on the implications of the financial takeover.
Terry Artis, a normally vocal board member who last year led a move to refuse to pay tuition bills for transfer students – a vote that was later rescinded by the board – clearly was torn between wanting to give his view and wanting to wait and talk with his colleagues.
In a brief interview, Artis said the Normandy board and McNichols were clearly shocked at the state board’s vote, which was not announced in advance. Then he added:
“It’s not the time to react. As soon as it is, I’ll give you a call.”