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Education

Missouri school board votes to merge Wellston school district into Normandy

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 17, 2009 - JEFFERSON CITY: The Missouri state School Board voted unanimously Thursday to dissolve the Wellston School District as of the end of June 2010 and have its students and assets taken over by the neighboring Normandy School District.

The move would be the first change in the makeup of public school districts in St. Louis County since 1975, when the Kinloch and Berkeley districts became part of Ferguson-Florissant.

Chris L. Nicastro, commissioner of elementary and secondary education, said Wellston's facilities and student achievement have not measured up, its financial outlook is weak and that the best hope to improve the deteriorating situation is to have the district taken over by Normandy. Wellston has been unaccredited since 2003.

"We believe Normandy presents the best long-term prospect for an environment that provides students with more options and enhanced opportunities for student achievement," Nicastro told the board.

No one spoke to the board in opposition to the plan, though at a public forum on Monday night, many of the questioners cast doubt on the wisdom of taking an unaccredited district like Wellston and making it part of a district like Normandy that has only provisional accreditation.

At that time, people also asked what the financial effect may be on Wellston and Normandy families; officials said those details were not yet worked out. At this time, Wellston's property tax rate is $5.67, the highest in St. Louis County; Normandy's rate is $4.24.

At Thursday's meeting, members of the state board thanked Charles Brown for his service as Wellston's interim superintendent since the state took control of the district in 2005. He said the vote was bittersweet, but he quoted the adage: "Pay me now or pay me later."

"In this particular case," Brown told the board, "you never say later. Now is the time. It's the best decision to be made short-term and long-term for the young people in the Wellston community.

"This is not something that stops. I see it as a continuation. There are seeds planted, and we'll begin to see the fruit of that. Everyone is looking at it as this is great for Wellston. I see it as this is great for Normandy. They're going to receive some young people who have been underestimated, and whenever you're underestimated, you're ahead from the beginning."

Brown said he was particularly proud of the higher graduation rate in Wellston and the fact that so many of the graduates were accepted to college.

Nicastro praised the "professional and child-focused approach" shown by Normandy since the issue was first brought up.

"There was never one moment's hesitation on the part of that Board of Education or the Normandy superintendent about taking the Wellston children in and educating them," she said. "Their attitude was, these are kids, these are neighbors, and we are delighted to have them as part of our school district."

Board member Peter Herschend of Branson noted that Normandy may not have been so welcoming if it had been approached three years ago to take over the Wellston district, given how bad things were physically, financially and academically.

"It was in a word deplorable, deplorable," he said. "It was academically abusive to the kids of Wellston. That has changed."

Member Stan Archie of Kansas City said that some may view the board's action as giving up on Wellston and its students, but given Wellston's history, he sees things differently.

"We calculated all the resources," he said. "Though the hope we were dreaming about last year and maybe the year before turned out to look differently this year, this offers a bridge to a different kind of hope." 

Read the Beacon's earlier story below.

- A standing-room crowd of residents and staff of the Normandy and Wellston school districts had plenty of questions Monday night about their proposed merger, but through a 75-minute meeting, one answer was clear: As of June 30 of next year, Wellston will cease to exist.

Though the issue won't be finally decided until Thursday, when the state Board of Education votes in Jefferson City, Chris L. Nicastro, Missouri's commissioner of elementary and secondary education, wasted no opportunity to talk about why it will be good for students for Wellston to become part of Normandy, not whether it will happen.

Even a sheet of frequently asked questions about the merger -- everything from facilities to sports, graduation standards to teacher contracts -- were phrased as absolutes, not possibilities. "All assets will be formally transferred to the Normandy School District." "All employee contracts will end on June 30, 2010."

But such certainty did not stop members of the audience from submitting dozens of written questions -- or prevent some of them from shouting out more. Though the meeting at Lucas Crossing Elementary School was generally tranquil, issues such as whether Wellston teachers will be guaranteed jobs in Normandy -- they won't -- and whether Wellston property taxes will go up -- it's not certain -- prompted outbursts from some in the crowd.

Through it all, Nicastro stuck to her message: Wellston's facilities are inadequate, its students have not made enough academic progress, its superintendent is retiring, its finances are stable but weak, there is little hope of more help from the state and this is the right time to try something new.

She said that though the decision to merge Wellston into Normandy was hers, subject to board approval, the district has been regularly evaluated since it lost accreditation in 2003, then was placed under the control of a special administrative board in 2005. Since that time, Nicastro said, the district's finances have stabilized, but it "faces a continuing uphill struggle" and making it part of Normandy is the best solution.

"One guiding principle has to be what is the best course of action so that Wellston kids have the best possible opportunity for education achievement, now and in the future," Nicastro said in one form or another several times through the evening.

In a list of questions and answers distributed at the meeting, the differences between the two districts was clear.

Wellston has 510 students, Normandy 4,947; Wellston has five buildings, Normandy has 11. Wellston's budget is $8 million, Normandy's is $66 million. Wellston spends $15,490 a student, Normandy spends $11,778. You can get complete, updated questions and answers from state education officials here .

Nicastro said that making Wellston part of Normandy made more sense than merging it with the other two districts that it is adjacent to, St. Louis and University City. She noted that the St. Louis public schools are also under the control of the state, and University City is working hard to improve its own achievement. She noted that Normandy High School is actually in the city limits of Wellston, so the merger seemed like a natural fit.

She said that while Normandy has its own challenges, it has made progress toward improvement. "It's a very different place," she said. "They have strong leadership in place."

Charles Brown, an assistant state superintendent for urban education who has chaired the Wellston special administrative board, called the decision decidedly bittersweet. He said everyone will try to keep the legacy of Wellston alive, but "we need to bring needed to change to our children, or they will continue to suffer. They deserve to have the best we have to offer, not in the future but now."

Normandy Superintendent Stanton Lawrence also spoke of the deep feelings involved in combining two districts that historically have been rivals in many respects. "It's very emotional," he said, "when you change from what was and move toward what should be."

He characterized Normandy as a "struggling but improving school district."

In an interview, Brown said that Wellston may not have had the money it needed to make the progress it had to make, but he said the district is hardly alone in that regard. "All across America," he said, "we don't have the resources to get the job done, and Wellston is no different."

Two residents of the Normandy district who do not send their children to public school were not happy about the merger and the answers they heard at the public forum.

Noting that Normandy itself has only provisional accreditation, Karen Nance said she did not understand how putting the two districts together will result in the kind of student achievement that educators say they want.

She also wondered why the public was only told about the proposal at the last minute, when it appears to have already been decided.

"I think the community does have good questions about what was the process," she said. "Why did it go this far without other ideas being discussed?

"If I were a Wellston parent, I would want to merge with a district that is fully accredited, not one that is struggling."

Jane Kayser said she felt sorry for Wellston teachers and staff who will lose their jobs at the end of June, adding:

"I am worried about two struggling districts managing. What kind of transition is going to be made, not only for the kids coming in here but for the kids who are already here?"

One topic that arose several times during the public forum was the long-time rivalry between the two districts, particularly in athletics. Basketball players from both Normandy and Wellston attended the meeting, in an effort to show that they can be teammates.

And Brown noted that in some places, buses from both districts pick up students, one on one side of the street and the other on the other side, When school is not in session, he said those students can be seen together, so there's no reason they can't succeed as part of the same school district.

"We're starting tonight," Nicastro said. "I'm confident that while they may be rivals today, tomorrow they will be on the same team."

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