Missouri education officials, who control the finances of the Normandy school district, say they won’t pay the costs of a lawsuit that asks the courts to take another look at the student transfer case.
The lawsuit, filed Wednesday in St. Louis County Circuit Court, wants a reconsideration of two issues the Missouri Supreme Court rejected in its unanimous decision last year that set in motion the student transfers: unfunded mandates and the impossibility to comply with the transfer law.
Filed by the district and half a dozen individuals, the suit names as defendants the state of Missouri, the state school board, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and 20 local districts that have received transfer students in the school year now ending.
In response, DESE said Thursday that it would not comment on the merits of the suit because it has not seen a copy; it also said it also would not release money to pay for Normandy’s costs in filing the action. The state took over the district’s finances in February and is responsible for approving all expenditures.
“Normandy’s finances are very fragile,” deputy Commissioner Ron Lankford said in a statement released by the department, “and we need to make every effort to allow students to finish the school year in June.”
At one time, the district appeared in danger of going bankrupt before the end of the school year, but an emergency appropriation from the General Assembly allowed it to continue and its students to stay in Normandy schools. At the same time the board gave DESE authority over the district’s finances, it also authorized a task force to determine the district’s future.
That task force submitted its recommendations last week, and on Tuesday the board approved a plan to replace the current district as of June 30 with a new entity, the Normandy Schools Collaborative. It would be run by an appointed board that reports directly to the state board.
In the lawsuit filed Wednesday, the district and individuals living there challenged that move. It also sought invalidation of the state law, passed in 1993, that authorizes students who live in unaccredited school districts to transfer to nearby accredited ones. The sending district is responsible for paying for tuition and in some cases transportation for the transfer students.
The law has been upheld twice by the Missouri Supreme Court, most recently in a unanimous opinion last June that set off the flurry of activity leading to the transfers at the end of the summer.
In that ruling, the court addressed two of the main issues brought up in the new lawsuit, striking down a lower court ruling that had said the transfer law, known as 167.131, was invalid.
“This court finds that section 167.131, as it is applied to the defendant school districts involved in this case, does not violate the Hancock Amendment,” the opinion written by Judge Mary Russell read. “Further, under the facts of this case, the trial court erred in finding that it would be ‘impossible’ for the defendant school districts to comply with the requirements of section 167.131.”
The Hancock provision involved whether the ability to transfer from unaccredited districts amounted to an unfunded mandate because the sending district sometimes had to pay a higher tuition to the receiving district than it would have paid on its own to educate the student who was leaving.
The "impossibility" defense hinged on the question of whether the receiving districts would be able to accommodate an influx of transfers. At the time the case was heard, the St. Louis Public Schools system was unaccredited, and a study introduced at the trial said thousands of students could be expected to transfer, forcing the district to lose money and forcing receiving districts to spend money.
Stop the financial bleeding
Richard Ulrich, an attorney who worked on the new lawsuit for Normandy, said in an interview Thursday that both of those issues were more theoretical when the original case was heard. Now that the real impact of the transfers can be evaluated – primarily the heavy toll on Normandy’s budget – he said the courts should take another look.
“Those issues really weren’t ripe when the case got in front of the Supreme Court,” Ulrich said.
Now, he added, Normandy wants to stop the drain of its finances and wants an injunction to stop the state from replacing the district with the new entity that would be overseen by the state board.
“They want the bleeding to stop,” he said. “There are 85 percent of their students left, and so far they’re spending $8 million on tuition, not to mention transportation costs. So they want financial solvency.”
Ulrich also cited a portion of the Missouri constitution that says a district cannot spend more money than the revenue and assets it has in any given year.
“We think the transfer law is forcing them to do that,” he said.
He said the district’s reformation plan spells out how it can improve student achievement and regain accreditation, and he thinks Superintendent Ty McNichols should be given the chance to put the plan into place.
“They have a superintendent in office for less than a year, a very dynamic guy,” Ulrich said. “He has innovations he wants to implement, and to succeed in that environment, they have to have strong roots. They are expanding on that, with programs with Boeing and the banks and with UMSL.
“They just think it’s essential to keep that local root involvement without bringing in a whole bunch of new people who are going to have to start over.”
He said he wasn’t sure how quickly the courts might move on the injunction requested to stop the new entity from being in place on July 1.
Also up in the air is what will happen with a wide-ranging transfer law sent by the General Assembly to Gov. Jay Nixon last week. Nixon has strongly hinted he will veto the bill because it includes an option for students to transfer to non-sectarian private schools, under certain conditions. But it also removes the obligation for unaccredited districts to pay transportation costs for transferring students.
No unauthorized expenses
On the issue of paying for the lawsuit, in a letter dated Thursday to McNichols, Lankford spelled out three conditions that are part of the mandate under which the state took over the district’s finances:
- The district will provide to the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education a list containing information on all unresolved legal claims against the district. The information will include date of initiation of legal action; amount of claim for any dispute that is pending; and status of litigation.
- The district shall notify the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education in writing and supply all necessary documentation of any new, unplanned or emergency expenditures that arise. Moving forward with any action of this type will require written authorization from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.
- All contract extensions will require approval from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.
The letter added that DESE would not pay the costs of the lawsuit filed Wednesday.
“This action should be terminated,” Lankford wrote, “to assure that that no district funds are utilized to defray the associated costs, which violates the terms under which the state Board of Education allowed the local board of education to continue governance of the district after loss of accreditation.”