Residents of the 24 communities that make up the Normandy School District are rallying behind the schools as their fate is being decided in Jefferson City, a task force studying the district’s future was told Thursday.
Chris Krehmeyer, president and CEO of the group Beyond Housing, said that just as its 24:1 initiative has helped revitalize the area in general, with more options for basic services such as banking and groceries, it also has generated more support for the schools.
Noting a recent series of public events -- including a prayer vigil, a rally, a bus trip to Jefferson City and a march by middle school students saying that their education is a basic civil right -- Krehmeyer said that such support may have been a long time coming, but it is getting stronger.
Now, he said in an interview after his presentation to the transition task force, residents have a clear message they are sending to education officials and lawmakers who are trying to determine what will happen to the district.
“We want our schools to be the best they can be,” Krehmeyer said the residents are telling everyone who will listen. “We want to have local control. We want to make sure we have nothing but the best for our children. So there’s a palpable energy and change of sentiment about what’s happening in this community.”
The 10-member task force was named by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education after the state school board voted last month to put Normandy’s finances under DESE’s control. The district’s budget has been hit hard by the tuition and in some cases the transportation costs it must pay for about 1,000 students who have transferred to nearby accredited schools under a law upheld last year by the Missouri Supreme Court.
The most immediate problem is money Normandy needs to complete the school year. Officials had said that without the supplemental money, the district would likely go bankrupt around April 1.
The amount needed originally was estimated at $6.8 million, then $5 million. The latter amount was approved by the Missouri House, but the state Senate voted this week to approve only $1.5 million in emergency funds.
State Rep. Rick Stream, R-Kirkwood, who chairs the House Budget Committee, said Thursday that DESE now estimates Normandy’s need at about $2 million. He expects a conference committee to begin meeting next week to come up with a figure.
Carole Basile, the dean of the school of education at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, is chair of the transition task force. She told its meeting on the UMSL campus Thursday that while the group studies possible changes in the district after the current school year, no one really knows yet what might be needed, or even what it means for a district to lapse.
“I think once we know what happens with the legislature and decisions that are made from that perspective and from the state department,” she said in an interview, “then we’ll know when and how that decision gets made.”
The panel’s recommendations are due by the middle of May, but it will stay in place to help direct whatever transition ends up being made.
“We are looking at what happens in a transition year,” Basile said. “So if the district lapses as of June 30, what happens in a transition year and what happens after that, in the long term.”
'Keep the community together'
Krehmeyer told the task force that the partnership between Beyond Housing and Normandy schools began five years ago but took on more urgency as the district lost its accreditation and its students became eligible to transfer to accredited schools.
“The community has been coming together,” he said. “This community has been recognizing these schools are important to us….
“Keep the community together. Don’t send kids to multiple places, but keep these kids in this place.”
He noted that Tyrone McNichols, who became superintendent on July 1, was dealt an impossible hand right from the start. But a reformation plan put together by the district is the right formula for success, Krehmeyer added.
He said that McNichols “is not going to be the most charismatic, fire and brimstone kind of leader. But he cares about those kids and he’s absolutely at his best when he’s talking about teaching and learning in the classroom.
“Is that going to be enough, individually? No. He’s got to get the right team around him, but he’s the right leader.”
And, Krehmeyer added, he is getting the community support he needs.
“Clearly, in the past two years, there have been a lot of flashpoints and a lot of additional conversation,” he said. “But the other thing that has occurred is there is a sense of hope. Now, I have seen people say, ‘I want to be a part of this. I haven’t been a part of this for all sorts of reasons, but now I see the community rallying and a whole bunch of folks getting involved.'
“It doesn’t make magic happen in and of itself, but with that energy, I’m really impressed by the way the community has advocated for itself in Jefferson City.”
Changing the culture in a district where the schools have underperformed for so long won’t be easy, Krehmeyer added. But, he told the task force, “give this superintendent a chance. Give the reformation plan a chance to work.”
Members of the task force discussed a variety of factors that have affected Normandy’s performance.
Former state Sen. Wayne Goode, a Normandy graduate, noted that in terms of finances, the district has spent more than $13,000 in revenue per student, placing it among the top half of St. Louis County districts in terms of money.
“It’s a poor district in terms of the people who live there,” Goode said, “but it’s not a poor district in terms of the money that it spends on education.”
Maxine Clark, founder of Build-a-Bear Workshop, agreed.
“It’s not about just money,” she said. “Money isn’t the issue.”
Gary Cunningham, a former member of the state school board and also a Normandy graduate, wondered whether the district should be providing the support services that Krehmeyer had said the community needs.
“Getting the schools too much involved in support services just detracts from the mission of the school,” he said. “The mission of the school is education.”
But Monica Huddleston, mayor of Greendale, one of the communities that make up the district, countered:
“You can’t get education without that support.”
Basile emphasized that though the task force is meeting in public, at the direction of DESE, she did not want anyone to think that ideas raised by its members are necessarily going to be adopted. It plans a number of sessions in the coming weeks, concentrating on a variety of topics that could affect Normandy’s future.
The panel’s next meeting is Monday, from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. at UMSL’s Millennium Student Center. It is scheduled to hear from McNichols and members of the Normandy school board.