Missouri education officials are going to recommend that under the new Normandy school entity, which takes effect July 1, students who have transferred from that district to nearby accredited districts would still be able to do so, but tuition rates would be capped at about $7,200. No new transfers would be allowed.
Under the state plan, the transportation situation for transfer students would stay the same.
The new district would have no accreditation classification under the recommendations to be made by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to the state board of education at its meeting in Jefferson City later this month, commissioner Chris Nicastro said Friday.
Nicastro met with area school superintendents at the offices of EducationPlus, which helped coordinate the student transfers after the Missouri Supreme Court upheld the student transfer law last June.
Rather than continue the unaccredited status of the current Normandy district, which is scheduled to lapse on June 30, Nicastro said DESE would recommend that the new Normandy Schools Collaborative have no accreditation status at all.
She said that that situation, if approved by the state board, would allow Normandy students who transferred last year to continue to attend their new schools but no new students could enter the transfer program.
About 765 Normandy students who transferred in the past school year have expressed interest in continuing in the program for the coming school year, according to EducationPlus.
Altogether, the group said, 2,144 transfer students were placed in other districts at the start of the school year just ended; by April, that number was 2,011.
Of 279 applications from new transfer students, 157 were from Riverview Gardens, the area’s only other unaccredited district. The 122 Normandy students who applied for the first time to transfer for the coming school year would not be able to under the plan outlined by Nicastro.
As the transfer program allowed, the sending districts designated receiving districts as ones to which they would pay for transportation as well as tuition for students who chose to leave. Normandy chose Francis Howell in St. Charles County; Riverview Gardens chose Mehlville, then Kirkwood.
The current Normandy board has filed suit both to stop the state from lapsing the district and to challenge the transfer law. Its lawsuit said the law violates the Hancock amendment by mandating actions without providing money to pay for them, making it impossible for the district to comply.
For this past school year, the receiving districts set the tuition for transfer students; tuition has been as high as $20,000 for students going to Clayton. No district receiving transfer students was charging as little as $7,200.
A fragile situation
The costs of tuition and in some cases transportation drove Normandy to the brink of bankruptcy before it received emergency funds from the state to help it last to the end of the school year.
But lawmakers made clear that they would approve the additional money only if the current elected Normandy board did not handle it. So the state board took over the district’s finances, then decided to lapse the district altogether.
Nicastro told reporters after meeting with superintendents that finances are the main reason that she is recommending no new students in Normandy should be allowed to transfer in the coming school year.
"The financial situation of the district as everyone knows is very fragile," she said. "And while we will be creating a balanced budget that will get the district through next year, they’re nevertheless starting with no capital from which to work. So we don’t want to take on that additional expenditure at this time."
The new Normandy will be run by an appointed board. Nicastro said it has not yet been decided how many people will be on the board and whether it will include any members of the current elected board. Also undetermined is the budget for the new Normandy and who will be on its staff. All contracts for current personnel will be void on July 1.
Asked whether the new cap on tuition would also apply to students transferring from Riverview Gardens, Nicastro said not necessarily. But she strongly hinted that the state will urge a uniform tuition for transfers from both districts.
Ron Lankford, deputy commissioner for administrative services, provided a model calculation to show how they arrived at the $7,200 figure. It includes what a district would get under the state foundation formula, a modifying factor depending on the cost of living where a district is located and other factors.
The resulting $7,200 figure is close to the amount that districts get that accept students under the voluntary desegregation plan. It also is the amount that most districts in the St. Louis receive from the state, before local money is factored in.
Normally, the state board puts school districts in one of four classifications: accredited with distinction, accredited, provisionally accredited or unaccredited. But Nicastro said she did not think the new Normandy district should receive a classification until it has a few years of data, since it essentially is starting from scratch, and there is no law that requires the state to give a district a classification.
"There is nothing specific I can think of in statute that says a district must be accredited," she said. "It does give the state board of education the authority to classify school districts."
Late Friday, Normandy released a statement that said:
"For months, Normandy officials have advocated for a true tuition fix that would have prevented the district from going bankrupt as a result of spending more than $8 million in tuition and transfer payments to nearly 20 nearby school districts during the 2013-2014 school year.
"Since we have not received information from Commissioner Nicastro nor the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education regarding the tuition and accreditation status proposals, at this time it is unknown how both measures will impact the district and our students."
In Riverview Gardens, Superintendent Scott Spurgeon said in an interview that the district would wait and see what action the state board takes on the recommendations, then decide on a course of action.
For now, he said, his focus is on letting parents in Riverview Gardens know that the district is making progress on improving its academic achievement and they should definitely make keeping their students in their home district an option.
Don Senti, head of EducationPlus, said about two dozen superintendents attended the meeting, mostly those from districts that have been receiving transfer students. Ty McNichols, superintendent in Normandy, was not among them.
Senti said he thinks districts will follow the plan set out by Nicastro, though he acknowledged that the public may be confused by the fact that Normandy and Riverview Gardens will be operating under different tuition rules.
While the plan announced by Nicastro Friday settles some of the unanswered questions surrounding the transfers, some remain up in the air. Gov. Jay Nixon has said he will veto the 135-page school transfer bill passed by the General Assembly, though he has not acted yet. He objected to a provision that would let transfer students use public money to pay for tuition at a non-sectarian private school.
Lawmakers could try to override the veto, though they appear not to have the votes in the House to do so, or could seek to pass a new law in a special session if Nixon calls one for that purpose.
Another potential problem is the lawsuit filed by Normandy, which seeks an immediate halt to the plan by the state to lapse the district. No hearings have been set in the suit.
Senti noted that such uncertainties don’t make it any easier for families to plan their children’s education.
“The thing we have to remember,” he said, “is that the families involved in this have said that the adults in this state have really messed this up for kids. Now we have 1,500 kids out there wondering if they are going to be in the same school next year.”
And, he noted, if Riverview Gardens has to continue to pay the same tuition rates that it and Normandy were charged this past year, it faces the same financial problems.
“If things go forward the way they are now,” Senti said, “Riverview will probably be bankrupt in April of Next year.”