The Normandy School District isn’t going broke at the beginning of April, as some education officials had forecast in recent months. But that doesn’t mean that the district’s future is secure.
At Monday night’s meeting of the state task force formed to recommend the future direction of the district, officials from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education said that Normandy’s future depends in large part on what bills the General Assembly may pass before it adjourns in mid-May.
The final decision is likely to be up to the state board of education, which will meet about a week after the lawmakers end their session. Several bills are being considered that could affect Normandy’s finances and its accreditation status.
Because it is unaccredited now, students who live in the district may transfer to nearby accredited schools, with Normandy paying their tuition and in some cases their transportation costs as well. That financial impact has put the district in precarious financial condition.
To finish the current school year it will need an emergency appropriation of about $2 million. The House has approved $5 million; the Senate has approved just $1.5 million. The difference is expected to be resolved by a conference committee. But those funds, combined with the district’s reserve and other money from a capital fund, are expected to leave the district with a balance near zero when its fiscal year ends June 30.
Ron Lankford, deputy education commissioner for financial and administrative services, told the task force meeting at the University of Missouri-St. Louis that such a financial situation puts a district into the “financially stressed” category. At that point, the legislature and neighboring school districts have to be advised of the potential that a district could go under.
If a district can no longer afford to provide education to its students, it can be declared lapsed. At that point, according to Mark Van Zandt, DESE’s legal counsel, its structure can be dissolved.
Then, he said, the state board has a range of options it could impose. They include a special administrative board, like the ones in place now in Riverview Gardens and St. Louis; a plan where the district is broken up into smaller districts; or a plan where the district is broken up and its students are assigned to other districts; or the district as a whole is annexed to another district.
A new law that took effect last year gives the state board wider latitude to deal with failed districts, and it can move more quickly. The board voted in March to approve a plan that details the steps it is likely to take when districts fail to improve.
At least one bill, Lankford pointed out, could actually mean Normandy regains accreditation if 55 percent of its schools achieve a certain level in the state’s annual performance review. At that point, the transfers would stop.
“It it passed the way it is right now,” he said, “our understanding is that the Normandy School District would become accredited again, so if it became accredited again, it’s no longer an issue.”
Because the process has so many moving parts, in the bills being considered by the General Assembly and Normandy’s finances, members of the task force at times seemed frustrated by the lack of a clear forecast foe the district’s future.
“This task force must know the answers to these questions,” said Monica Huddleston, mayor of the city of Greendale. “We can’t move forward until we have those answers.”
A plea for more time
After Lankford and Van Zandt made their presentations and answered questions, the task force heard from two members of the Normandy school board – President William Humphrey and Vice President Sheila Williams – and Superintendent Ty McNichols.
All three said the district needs more time and more resources to put in place a reformation plan that they said would raise its student achievement to more acceptable levels.
Humphrey noted that the student transfer law was upheld by the Missouri Supreme Court just last June, a few weeks before McNichols began his job as superintendent. When the drain on the district’s budget began, the school board responded by closing an elementary school and laying off more than 100 employees at mid-year.
Such actions, he said, robbed Normandy students of the stability they need to learn.
“It’s one thing to have to do that at the end of a school year,” Humphrey said. “It’s another to have to do it in the middle of the year.
“Kids need normalcy. There’s been nothing normal about this year.”
McNichols said he determined from the start that he and the school board would have to work as a unit to show the public that they were working to give their children the best education available. He said the community has responded favorably, but Normandy still needs changes in the district’s culture.
With a large population of students who live in poverty, and a high rate of transients, learning often suffers, McNichols said.
“We have to educate the kids we have in front of us,” he said, “not the kids we would like to have in front of us.”
He noted that the communities that make up the district include a wide range of economic levels.
“We’ve got nice homes in our community,” he said. “Those aren’t the kids who go to our schools.”
A lengthy discussion between McNichols and former state Sen. Wayne Goode, a Normandy graduate, centered on finances. Goode noted that many of Missouri’s 520 school districts have families living in poverty, and they are watching to see if Normandy gets preferential treatment in terms of dollars from the state that are outside the foundation formula.
“If you want money from the state that’s not part of the formula,” Goode said, “that’s pretty difficult to do.”
McNichols countered: “We’re going to start July 1 with zero dollars…. But somebody is still going to have to teach those kids.”
Responding to suggestions that the district may be better off starting from scratch with an appointed board rather than its current elected one, Humphrey said such a move would negate much of the public support the district has garnered recently.
“Through all of the public hearings that have gone on,” he said in an interview after the meeting, “the constituents of this community have said in no uncertain terms that they would like to have local control over their school district. And I think what the stakeholders and the citizens of this community are asking for should be taken into strong consideration by anyone making decisions.”
At one point, he told the task force that Normandy needs more time and more resources to put its plans into place.
“We’ve played enough games with the lives of children,” he said.
“Give us the room to work, give us the money, and hold us accountable like you would hold any other district accountable to give results.”
In the end, Humphrey told the task force: “I don’t know what decision you’re going to make. I only ask that whatever is done is in the best interest of the children. So far, I haven’t seen it.”