Several parents of students who live in the Normandy school district filed suit in St. Louis County Circuit Court Monday, challenging the state’s move to limit the number of students who may transfer out of Normandy to accredited school districts.
Citing the state’s transfer law, which has been upheld twice by the Missouri Supreme Court, the suit says the law clearly says that if a district "does not maintain an accredited school,” students living in the district may transfer, with the home district paying the tuition.
When the state took over the Normandy district – now called the Normandy Schools Collaborative – as of July 1, it gave the new Normandy no accreditation status at all. It also said that students who transferred last year may continue to transfer, under certain conditions, but not all of the students who went elsewhere last year met those conditions.
Joshua Schindler, who filed the lawsuit on behalf of seven parents of nine students in Normandy, said in an interview that the rationale used by the state does not follow the letter of the law, and its new rules shut out students whose parents have paid taxes in Normandy for years. About 1,000 Normandy students transferred in the school year that just ended.
He called the move by state education officials “unacceptable, unjust and unfair.”
Named as defendants in the suit are the state of Missouri, the state board of education, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, the Normandy Schools Collaborative and several St. Louis County districts that accepted transfer students last year. A spokeswoman for DESE said the department has not yet seen the suit and could not comment.
The suit seeks a court order to block the restrictions placed on the students' ability to transfer out Normandy. It claims that the new guidelines for transfers issued by the state were not properly formulated, according to procedures set out in state law.
Schindler said the lawsuit focuses on the language of the transfer law, known as 167.131, and the conditions under which transfers are allowed. He said the language of the statute is “crystal clear” in its intent.
“Basically,” he said, “167.131 clearly says that you have to maintain an accredited school. No one can say there is an accredited school in Normandy today. I’m hard-pressed to see what they are going to do and how they are going to get around this.no one can say there is an accredited school in Normandy today. I’m hard-pressed to see what they are going to do and how they are going to get around this.
“You may say we’re splitting hairs, but in fact we are not. The statute says accreditation. It does not talk about no accreditation status at all…. There is a point where enough is enough.”
Districts named in the suit are Pattonville, Ladue, Clayton, Brentwood, Parkway and Ritenour. Of those, Ritenour and Pattonville have said they would no longer accept any Normandy transfers at all for the coming school year.
When the state board set out the rules under which the Normandy Schools Collaborative would operate, it said that only students who attended Normandy schools in the 2012-13 school year and transferred last year would be allowed to continue to transfer in the school year that begins next month.
The change was designed to prevent families that moved into Normandy last summer, after the Missouri Supreme Court upheld the transfer statute, from transferring at Normandy's expense. At the time the state board issued that regulation, DESE said that the change would mean that more than 130 students would no longer be able to transfer out Normandy.
Also, at the time, the issue was raised whether kindergarten students who transferred last year but were too young to attend any school in 2012-13 would be allowed to continue to transfer. DESE later issued regulations that said they could transfer. But transfers will not be allowed for incoming kindergartners unless they had siblings in the transfer program last year.
The state also reduced the amount of tuition that receiving districts could receive for transfers to about $7,200. Higher amounts, ranging up to nearly $20,000, were a big reason that Normandy almost went bankrupt in the last school year and was taken over by the state.
Schindler said the new regulations approved by the state board and issued by DESE do not follow the letter of the transfer law.
“Unfortunately,” he said, “DESE changed the ground rules and said that not only did you have to be a resident, but your child had to have gone to Normandy schools. Imagine how fundamentally unfair it is for a little child who went to the Ladue school district, for example, or Clayton or Brentwood, and suddenly you disrupt that kid’s education and make them go back to Normandy. Or, with just a few weeks go to until school starts again, to make that family have to scramble.
“It’s unacceptable that these school districts should be turning these kids away. Everyone who went last year should at a minimum be allowed to go this year.”
Schindler said the costs of the lawsuit are being paid in part by the Children’s Education Alliance of Missouri, which helped parents navigate the paperwork maze for transfers last summer. He said the exact cost wasn’t available at this time.
After last year’s transfers experience, which he said went off pretty smoothly, Schindler said it was too bad that the legal case had to be tried in the courts again.
“Everybody worked extremely hard last year to solve this problem without litigation,” Schindler said. “In my opinion it’s an absolute travesty that we are here today.”
An earlier lawsuit challenging the state takeover of Normandy and the transfer law was dropped before it could get a hearing. Schindler said Monday that he did not necessarily agree that the suit should have been dropped, but he added that it raised issues that his action does not bring up.
Changes in the transfer procedures out of Normandy do not affect transfers out of Riverview Gardens, the area's only other school district where transfers began last year. But state officials have said they would like receiving districts to charge the same lower tuition amount for Riverview Gardens students than will be allowed for Normandy students, to keep Riverview Gardens from ending up in the same precarious financial position that Normandy found itself.