Normandy’s school superintendent says the district’s finances can be helped if lawmakers would cap tuition paid for transfer students at the same amount that districts receive for accepting deseg students going from St. Louis to St. Louis County.
That amount, about $7,200 a year, is less than Normandy has been paying for most of its 1,000 students who transferred to nearby accredited districts at the start of the current school year. Tuition rates range to as high as $20,000, and the payments have put Normandy’s finances at a precarious point.
The district says it needs $5 million in emergency funding to avoid going broke at the beginning of April. When the state school board voted last week to put the district’s finances under the control of the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, Commissioner Chris Nicastro said the move guaranteed Normandy students would finish out the school year in their own classrooms.
But so far, state lawmakers have not approved the emergency appropriation. If it doesn’t come from the legislature, Nicastro has said it will have to come out of sharper savings from the district’s budget.
To avoid such a drain in the future, Superintendent Ty McNichols – who arrived late to Thursday night’s Normandy board meeting because he was driving back from Jefferson City – said he has urged lawmakers to make the tuition rate for transfer students from unaccredited districts the same as that for students under the voluntary interdistrict desegregation plan.
“I wanted the state legislators to understand,” McNichols said in an interview after the meeting, “that if they have a different tuition rate, one which if the St. Louis Public Schools were to lose their accreditation … they would have two different tuition rates for kids who basically would be transferring out to the county, and that it would probably be in the best interest of the whole state to just have one fixed rate.
“Since that rate already exists in all of those districts, except for St. Charles County, and they accept that amount, why not just make that the same rate for the transfer?”
McNichols told board members he is “very optimistic” that lawmakers will approve some form of a cap on the amount of tuition paid for transfer students.
“They’re talking about the tuition fix,” he said. “That was not part of the conversation. It is now part of the conversation.”
By a vote of 5-1, the board approved the latest round of bills for the transfer students, for $809,897.27 for December. Board member Terry Artis, who has consistently opposed paying such bills, was the only no vote.
The board also discussed the possibility of a community rally to show support for Normandy schools as discussion continues in Jefferson City about possible changes in the transfer law and ways that state education officials can intervene to help struggling school districts.
The board was told that Beyond Housing, which has coordinated activities among the two dozen communities that make up the school district as part of its 24:1 program, would help organize the activities, which would involve students, teachers, alumni and other supporters of the district.
The main event tentatively is set for March 15, with other activities such a community vigil possible in the days leading up to that date. McNichols said the rally is something that Normandy supporters have wanted to do for a while.
“The community has been demanding that we allow them to do something,” he said after the board meeting. “We’ve been really trying to hold them back. So we decided, let’s just have a comprehensive weeklong series of events in which the community can show their support, not just at the DESE events but in the community itself. So this bubbled up from the community.”
After the meeting, board president William Humphrey was asked about the state move to take over Normandy’s finances. He called it a political decision aimed at ensuring that the district would get the money it needs to finish the school year.
But he also questioned why anyone at the state level thought Normandy could not control its budget. He noted that before the payments for transfer students began, the district’s fund balance was 19 percent, larger than what he said was the state average of 12 percent.
“There has not been any discussion with me that would say that there was anything, any financial improprieties or things like that,” he said, “because I think this particular board fully understands its fiduciary responsibilities. From that standpoint, as far as any kind of fiscal mismanagement, I don’t think that’s a part of the equation at all.”
Asked about hints in the past that the board is considering going to court to improve its chances of survival and change the transfer program, Humphrey said:
“It would have to be prudent of us to consider any and all things that would be in our best interest to consider the viability and continuation of the district. So at this point nothing is being ruled out. We haven’t made any firm decisions, but I wouldn’t rule anything out.”
In contrast to several earlier Normandy board meetings, this one was sparsely attended, with only a handful of people who are not employed by the district in the audience.