While policy debates and legal battles swirl around the new Normandy school district, Savonna Stacey has a more personal question:
Where can her son attend first grade when the new school year starts?
The Stacey family lives in the Normandy school district, and last summer, Stacey took advantage of the state law that lets students living in unaccredited districts enroll in nearby accredited ones. She enrolled Jonathan in kindergarten in Ritenour.
But on Monday in Jefferson City, the state board of education – which will be running the new Normandy Schools Collaborative as of July 1 if a lawsuit filed by current Normandy residents doesn’t block it – drew up new rules for who can transfer for the 2014-15 school year.
To stanch the financial bleeding that put Normandy into dire fiscal straits this past year, the board limited the transfers to students who had attended a Normandy school for at least one semester in the 2012-13 school year. The move was designed to stop transfers for an estimated 131 students, most of whom presumably were in families that moved into Normandy to take advantage of the transfer option.
So where does that leave Jonathan, who was too young to attend any public school in 2012-13? A spokeswoman for the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education said Tuesday the answer is unclear and department officials would have to discuss the situation.
Not surprisingly, that uncertainty worries Stacey.
“What am I supposed to do?” she asked. “I can understand if it was for middle or high school, but my child was in kindergarten this year.”
After being active in the PTO at Marion elementary school and appreciating the learning that was taking place there, Stacey would love for Jonathan to be able to continue. She said she’s thought about moving to Ritenour to keep Jonathan at his current school, but she just signed a new lease on her apartment for another 12 months. As a single mother working part time, breaking her lease would take money that she doesn’t have.
“It would be money that I’d have to save,” Stacey said. “And with school starting again in August, that’s not enough time.”
Connie Holtrop is in a similar situation. A single parent who sent three sons to the Ladue schools from Normandy this past year, she says the new policy “seems discriminatory and unfair and very disruptive to the children’s school experience and stability and security for them. I think it would be a huge setback for my kids if they’re not able to go to Ladue.”
Holtrop said she has lived in the Normandy school district since 1999 and sent foster children to Normandy schools but “was not impressed.” She said she definitely knew she did not want her sons – twins Mitchell and Jason, who were in fifth grade last year, and Monte, who was in first grade – to have the same experience.
Before the transfers, she said, the boys went to a Lutheran school.
“I have an appreciation for Christian education,” she said. “ That’s what I grew up in. But it’s not that I would necessarily go for the Christian education exclusively.”
Holtrop was originally asked to be part of the Normandy transition task force that came up with recommendations for the new state-run district, but she said she could not attend meetings because she had just started a new job.
She completed the paperwork for her sons to return to Ladue for the coming school year. Now, with the new policy, she says she isn’t sure what she’ll do.
“I don’t know,” she said. “I’ve contemplated selling my house, which I really don’t want to do. I’ve contemplated renting out my house and renting an apartment or renting a home somewhere in the Ladue school district area. I’ve thought at length about it.
“I want the stability for my kids and the excellent, excellent resources that the Ladue school district provides for my kids. They’re absolutely phenomenal, and I’m totally impressed with how they worked with my kids. So I could make significant sacrifices elsewhere and disrupt my own home situation potentially to be able to provide for my kids.”
For the second year, time is a pressing concern for families in Normandy wondering where their children will attend classes when school begins in August. Even for those families who meet the criteria approved by the state board, questions still remain about which districts will take part in the transfer program.
Unlike students in Riverview Gardens, students in the new Normandy may transfer only under the policy approved by the state board on Monday. A big part of that policy is a reduced level of tuition – around $7,200 – that Normandy will pay for each student who goes to a new district.
Now, nearby districts will have to decide in the coming weeks whether they are willing to accept that reduced amount instead of the tuition that they collected this past year. That amount ranged from the mid-$8,000 level up to nearly $20,000, but none was as low as $7,200.
A spokeswoman for DESE said Tuesday that the state cannot force districts to take students at the lower rate, though commissioner Chris Nicastro has said she hopes they will do so.
DESE “does not have the power to compel districts to accept transfer students or the tuition rate,” spokeswoman Sarah Potter said. “If they refuse the tuition rate, the students cannot transfer.”
The department has set up a toll-free number -- 855-879-3025 – for anyone with questions about the new Normandy district.
'Comedy of errors'
Meanwhile, adverse reaction to the state board’s actions came from a number of groups and individuals.
The Children’s Education Alliance of Missouri, which has been praised by Nicastro for its role in helping parents navigate the sometimes arcane transfer process, said that the vote to limit transfers to students who attended Normandy schools in 2012-13 would “pull the rug out from under families trying to put their children in higher performing schools. And families left in Normandy? The state board just locked the door and lost the key.”
The group urged the parents of transfer students from Normandy to “contact their new district and voice their hope that the receiving district will accept the new state mandated tuition.”
Also criticizing the state board was the Missouri Charter Public School Association. State law allows charter schools to be formed in unaccredited districts, but because the new Normandy will have no accreditation status at all, that provision will no longer apply.
“In one afternoon,” the group said in a statement, “the Missouri State Board of Education undid the work of Missouri’s General Assembly and the Missouri courts. They are chaining families to schools, which have long been unaccredited and removed the ability for quality charter public schools to open providing a quality, local option for families.”
The statement added: “The Missouri State Board of Education should listen to the pounding footsteps of those families who last year elected to transfer their children to schools outside of Normandy. They should vote to allow the Normandy Schools Collaborative and current sponsors to sponsor charter public schools in Normandy. ... This one decision would bring educational options back to families who have long been underserved.”
State Rep. Genise Montecillo, D-St. Louis County, said Monday’s action by the state board “continues the comedy of errors that has played out with the department on this issue.”
Specifying recommendations by Nicastro, Montecillo said the vote to limit the transfers “is the most recent in a long line of irresponsible decisions made by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. If this is what the commissioner and department had intended to do, it should have done it a year ago to avoid putting Normandy students and parents through a year of turmoil and plunging the district into bankruptcy."
And the Missouri branch of StudentsFirst, the education group founded by Michelle Rhee, said in a statement by state director Kit Crancer:
“Today the state board decided to take away the guarantee of better educational opportunities for students trapped in failing schools. Regardless of Normandy’s classification, I urge the state board and the department to continue to allow both new and existing transfers, so every child has the opportunity to receive a high-quality education.”
Financial and moral questions
Carole Basile, the dean of the college of education at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, headed the transition task force set up by the state board to come up with recommendations for the new Normandy.
She said Tuesday that the decisions made by the board have to be looked at in the context of the district’s precarious financial situation, while trying to help as many students as possible. That mix of financial and moral questions, she said, can’t always come out the way everyone would like to see.
“You think about how do we the best thing for the most kids,” she said in an interview, “and knowing there wasn’t a good solution for all kids. At the end of the day, would I have liked to see them be able to do it for all the kids who transferred before, because that would be most fair? Probably. But even in that scenario, you would have left out the kids who newly wanted to transfer.”
Basile added that any actions taken by the state have to follow the law the way it is written as well as the desire of the state board to keep Normandy solvent.
“How far do you want to take this?” she asked. “Somebody who was paying for private school education and decided to do something differently for her child and wanting to get them out of the school district, I would give her a choice. I think people need to have choice. I’m not sure we have the right law to allow people to do that.
“These were all good questions even before the law came into play. I came from another state where you had open enrollment and some other states have figured this out and give people choice, I think the larger question here is how do we do this as a state.”
In the end, she said, for Normandy to thrive, the district’s schools have to be fixed so families don’t want their students to go somewhere else.
“First and foremost,” Basile said, “you figure out how to change the culture of the school to welcome people in, to welcome people back, and make sure there is a really good teacher in every single classroom. Frankly that solves the transfer problem when you fix the schools.”
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