Rep. Rick Stream, chairman of the Missouri House Budget Committee, filed two bills Thursday that could help the Normandy School District avert going bankrupt in April.
One bill, part of a supplemental appropriations request, would provide $5 million in emergency funds for Normandy to help the district finish out the year. The other would result in districts that have received tuition payments for students transferring from unaccredited Normandy paying back some of that money to the district.
For example, for Normandy students who attend Clayton, which charges tuition of nearly $20,000, the bill would cap that tuition at 75 percent, and Clayton would have to repay Normandy the other $5,000 a student that has been paid since the beginning of the current school year.
In an interview, Stream said that the $5 million in supplemental money would not go to the elected board that is running Normandy schools now. Instead, he said, it would either go to the state department of education or to a special administrative board that the state would appoint. Either way, though, he said the money appears likely to win approval.
"We're going to make sure that Normandy gets the money," he said, "whether it goes to DESE or to a special board. That's our goal, to keep the kids in school for the entire school year. We're going to keep moving forward and make sure to give every opportunity for this thing to pass."
He said he wasn't sure whether Normandy would get $5 million in repayments of tuition it had sent to other districts, but that wasn't the only reason he put that provision in the bill.
Normandy has said that because of the financial drain caused by the transfer of about 1,000 students to other districts – 25 percent of its student body – it would run out of money and be unable to finish the school year. State education officials say that once a district is unable to educate its students, it lapses and its students are assigned to other districts.
Missouri’s transfer law says any student living in an unaccredited school district may transfer to nearby accredited schools, with the sending district paying tuition and in some cases for transportation as well. More than 2,000 students have transferred from Normandy and Riverview Gardens this school year.
Normandy officials have tried to cut their budget by closing an elementary school and laying off more than 100 staff members. But the district projects that those measures are not enough to ease the effects of spending about $1.3 million a month for the transfers.
The state board of education and Gov. Jay Nixon both asked that lawmakers approve $5 million in supplemental appropriations so that Normandy students can finish out the year. Lawmakers also are considering several bills to alter terms of the student transfers, and the state board is set to hear next week a proposal on the same topic being drawn up by the Department of Elementary Secondary Education.
When the supplemental appropriation was first mentioned, most lawmakers seemed cool to the idea. Chris Nicastro, commissioner of elementary and secondary education for the state, said last year that she saw little chance of its winning approval.
But Normandy Superintendent Ty McNichols has said in recent days that he has sensed a shift in sentiment in the General Assembly. “I’m optimistic,” McNichols told a news conference earlier this week. “People are starting to understand the story.”
Stream, R-Kirkwood, told St. Louis Public Radio and the Beacon last month that he thought passage of the $5 million appropriation was 50-50. But he included the money in the supplemental appropriations bill he filed Thursday and told the Associated Press that he thinks the money has a good chance of winning passage. He said he would like to see Normandy students finish the school year in their own district.
Asked for reaction to the provision that would provide the $5 million only to the state or to a special administrative board, not the current elected board in Normandy, a spokeswoman for the district send this response via email:
"At this time we are reviewing all bills that have been presented. We will also continue to communicate with the state legislature on what is in the best interest for the Normandy School District."
A statement from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education responded this way:
"Department requested the additional funding to allow Normandy students to finish the school year in their local schools. We agree with Chairman Rick Stream that the Department should provide more financial oversight as the district finishes out this school year."
Student transfer bill
Under the student transfer bill Stream filed Thursday, HB1868, several crucial changes would be made to the current transfer program.
The most important might be the cap on the amount of money that unaccredited school districts would have to pay to districts where their students transferred – 70 percent of the receiving district’s tuition rate, plus another 5 percent that the sending district would pay into a transportation fund for transfer students.
The bill contains an emergency clause that would have it take effect immediately if it is passed by the General Assembly and signed by Gov. Jay Nixon. It would make the percentage for payments applicable retroactively to the current school year, meaning that many districts that have received tuition payments so far this year from Normandy and Riverview Gardens would have to repay a portion of the funds to the sending districts.
House Speaker Tim Jones told the AP he would move the bill quickly. The Senate also is weighing several bills on the topic of student transfers.
Other highlights of Stream's bill:
- Accreditation would be done by school buildings in districts that are unaccredited or provisionally accredited.
- In unaccredited districts, only students from unaccredited buildings may transfer.
- Transfers from an unaccredited district would be allowed only to go to districts that are fully accredited.
- To transfer, students in unaccredited buildings would have to prove residency in their district for 12 months. They could first transfer to accredited buildings in their district, then outside the district when in-district buildings are full.
- Buildings in unaccredited districts that are provisionally accredited or unaccredited would be placed under the direction of a Statewide School Achievement District, which would have a five-year limit on control of a school unless it is making steady, sufficient progress.
- Before reverting to local control, a school would have to perform at an accredited level for five years.
- Districts that could receiving transfer students would establish by Aug. 1 of this year class size and student-teacher ratios that would limit the number of transfer students they would be required to accept.
- If an unaccredited district achieves provisional or full accreditation, any students who have transferred from that district would be allowed to remain in their new district.
- Unaccredited districts would have the flexibility to institute a longer school day, longer school year and shorter summer vacation.
- Provisionally accredited districts will have “assistance teams” to evaluate their operations, in and out of the classroom, and make recommendations designed to keep the districts from falling into unaccredited territory.
- To help students remain close to home, charter schools would have added sponsor opportunities and accelerated procedures.
- Students would have the option to transfer to a private, non-sectarian school if it accredited, has been in operation for at least three years and administers the state’s MAP test. Again, tuition would be capped at 70 percent of the rate of the receiving district.
The bill also has a provision that applies only to the St. Louis Public Schools, saying that districts with more than 15,000 students that are governed by a Special Administrative Board would be governed by “special rules and guidelines.”
Many provisions of Stream’s bill have been discussed as part of plans submitted by districts, education groups and others to the state board of education. The board spent nearly six hours discussing the various features of those plans at a work session Monday in Jefferson City.
Board members seemed particularly opposed to the provision of putting struggling districts under a statewide board, as Stream’s bill would call for. Opponents of such an arrangement have termed it an “educational ghetto” or a “lepers’ colony.”
Stream said in the interview that he hadn't heard those characterizations. He said giving special attention to underperforming schools makes sense. He pointed out that in St. Louis Public Schools, Superintendent Kelvin Adams has personally taken over monitoring of such schools to make sure they improve.
"This is not something that's unusual," Stream said. "It's a shame that some people have classified this as a leper colony. Come on.
"It's frustrating to see these districts really struggling. We're talking about kids. We can't seem to get off the dime and take substantive action."
Stream noted that his bill is just one of many on the subject of underachieving schools that lawmakers are considering. He expects whatever wins final passage to be a group effort. And he noted that "in the legislature, it's difficult to get big bills through.
"Everyone has a different opinion about what to do with these underperforming school districts. I still have to be realistic about it."
The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education is scheduled to submit its own plan for dealing with unaccredited districts, as well as to deal with the impending bankruptcy of Normandy, at a state board meeting in Jefferson City on Tuesday.