A state-appointed task force charged with mapping the future of the Normandy School District has begun meeting in private to come up with recommendations for state school officials by the time the legislative session ends in May.
The 10-member transition team, chaired by Carole Basile, dean of the school of education at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, held its first meeting Monday morning. Chris Nicastro, Missouri’s commissioner of elementary and secondary education, originally asked members to come up with recommendations by April 10, but Basile said in an interview that deadline had been extended to mid-May.
In a letter to members of the group, Nicastro said they are “charged with developing a transition plan that can be put in place upon district lapse as early as July 1, 2014. The plan should provide recommendations for: 1) organization and school oversight; 2) recruiting and identifying high quality teachers and leaders; 3) identifying sponsors to maintain the local operation of school buildings; and 4) other operational issues which would need to be addressed during the transition.”
Nicastro said that those named to the group would be "1) members of the Normandy or greater community with an interest in the children of the Normandy School District; 2) individuals with a demonstrated track record of working for the educational well-being of children; 3) individuals who are able and willing to think creatively and broadly about the issue of quality schools with a singular focus on the interests of children and their families.”
She stressed that “no one with a financial interest or contractual relationship with the Normandy School District is eligible to serve on the task force.”
After submitting its recommendations in May, the group is to stay in place through the 2014-15 school year to monitor progress on the transition and advise Nicastro as the process moves forward.
Besides Basile, members of the task force are: Maxine Clark, founder of Build-A-Bear Workshop who has been active in education issues; Steven Cousins, a partner in the law firm of Armstrong Teasdale; Gary Cunningham, a Normandy graduate and former member of the state school board; attorney William Douthit, who was active in the areawide school desegregation case; former state Sen. Wayne Goode; Connie Holtrop, a parent; Monica Huddleston, mayor of Greendale; Charles Pearson, a district resident and retired school teacher and administrator; and Sharon Thompson, a grandmother.
Goode, who said he had been involved with the Normandy schools “since first grade,” said in an interview that he couldn’t get too specific about what the task force would be doing because it had just begun its work.
“We’ve been charged with looking at the future of the Normandy School District under various circumstances that could occur,” Goode said, “depending on what the legislature does or doesn’t do, among other things.”
Lawmakers are currently debating a request by the state school board and Gov. Jay Nixon for an emergency infusion of $5 million the district says it needs to finish out the school year. The money was in a supplemental appropriations bill approved by the House.
But a Senate committee vote unanimously on Tuesday to slash that amount to just $1.5 million. Appropriations Committee Chairman Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia, said the reduced amount would be sufficient. Legislators cut the funding request because of concerns that the state would be funding Normandy’s liabilities that go beyond enabling students to finish the school year.
The money could still be restored by the full Senate or during final negotiations with House leaders.
Whatever money is eventually approved by lawmakers would go not to the Normandy school board but to DESE. When the state school board voted last month to establish the transition task force, it also gave DESE control over Normandy’s finances, effective immediately. Some lawmakers had said that move was a change required before they could approve the emergency money.
After that vote, Nicastro assured students and others in Normandy that the district would remain intact through the rest of the school year, though she has acknowledged that if the additional money is not forthcoming, her department would have to find it within the existing Normandy budget.
The vote by the state board to establish the task force called on Nicastro to name a transition panel to come up with plans for Normandy if the district lapsed. It was “charged with: 1) developing a transition plan; 2) recruiting and identifying high quality teachers and leaders; 3) advising the department on other operational issues during the transition if this becomes necessary.”
In the interview, Goode said that “even if they get the $5 million, which certainly is a big if, they still by the end of June would run out of that money.”
The district’s budget was hit hard by the need to pay for tuition and transportation for students who transferred to accredited districts under a state law that is also the subject of debate and possible revision by lawmakers.
“Our task,” Goode added, “is to look at how responsibilities might fall, depending on various scenarios…. We want to see what is viable or not viable under various circumstances and make recommendations to the commissioner.”
He defended the decision to keep the conversations private, saying:
“Sometimes, situations are such that you just need to be able to talk and loop at the options…. It’s not our intention to hide, but on the other hand, some things just need to be discussed. We’re charged with making recommendations. We need to decide what those recommendations are with some amount of discretion.”
In a separate interview, Basile noted how quickly things are changing in Normandy and in Jefferson City, and she pointed out that DESE has held several sessions where members of the public have been able to give their thoughts about the future of the district.
“I think we will go through an exploration about what kind of things we could be doing,” she said, “what the ramifications are if the district lapses on June 30. This is really an effort to come up with a Plan B and put all the options on the table. Nobody is saying that this is what the plan is going to be….
“I don’t want to be sitting around the table 'what iffing' and have it get out there and not be what we recommend.”
While the task force isn’t planning any public meetings, Basile said members of the public are still welcome to come up with their scenarios.
“I’m happy to talk to anybody who wants to talk to me,” she said. “Anybody who has an idea can call me or call anybody who is on the task force. I have no trouble with that.”
Dryver Henderson, a persistent critic of the district and a candidate for the Normandy school board next month, called the decision to keep the meetings behind closed doors “a public relations mistake.”
“When you’re dealing with a public school district,” he said, “even if it were a private corporation, my public relations training is to always err on the side of being transparent.”
He said he had talked with Basile about the district but she was not as familiar with details of what is going on in Normandy as he is or others who have been active in recent months.
“None of these people have been involved actively in the school district,” Henderson said. “They’re not up to date. They haven’t attended any board meetings, or any meetings whatsoever. Shame on them.”
Word of the start of meetings by the transition task force came as Normandy planned to begin a series of public events culminating in a rally on Saturday.
Events include a bus trip to Jefferson City on Wednesday, a march and alumni social on Thursday, a pep rally and community prayer vigil at the high school on Friday and a community rally from noon to 3 p.m. at Viking Hall on Saturday.
“The time is now for students, teachers, parents, residents, business owners and friends to stand up and show support for the Normandy School District and our community,” a flyer for the events read. “Join us on Saturday, March 15th and let your voice be heard. We’re stronger together.”