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Petition seeks changes in student transfer law

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: An online petition asking Missouri lawmakers to limit the law that allows students living in unaccredited school districts to transfer to accredited ones has attracted scores of signatures since it was created late last week.

The petition, on the website change.org, is addressed to Gov. Jay Nixon and members of the Missouri House and Senate, specifically state Sen. Tom Dempsey, president pro tem of the Senate, and House Speaker Tim Jones.

It asks that they “do anything in your power to amend the statute; keeping unaccredited district transfers within the boundaries of their home county, ONLY.”

Currently, any students who live in unaccredited districts – Normandy and Riverview Gardens in north St. Louis County plus Kansas City on the western edge of the state – may transfer to accredited districts in their own or adjacent counties. For the St. Louis area, that means schools in the city of St. Louis plus St. Louis, St. Charles, Jefferson and Franklin counties.

The unaccredited districts must pay tuition to the receiving districts for the transfer students. They must also designate one district to which they would pay transportation costs as well. Normandy’s designation of Francis Howell triggered hundreds of expressions of protest in the St. Charles County district. Riverview Gardens is expected to designate its transportation district at a board meeting Tuesday night.

Andi Stopke of Weldon Spring, who started the petition, says she did so because she did not think that the conversations she saw on Facebook and elsewhere were advancing the debate in very constructive ways.

“I watched the comments going in a direction that was very unflattering to our community and taking the issue off topic (on both sides of this issue),” she wrote the Beacon in an email. “I posted a few times asking the posters to take some sort of constructive action, like emailing the FH board members, state legislators, etc. This seemed to have very little effect and the comments got continually worse.

“While I respect everyone's view on this issue, complaining to one another and getting in heated conversations on Facebook do nothing to fix the issue. I began researching petitions and how to voice my concern in a productive way and came across the change.org site and thought that it was a good starting point.”

Stopke said she had personally contacted Nixon and Dempsey, who represents part of St. Charles County, as well as state Reps. Kurt Bahr and Mark Parkinson, who also live in the area. But, she added, she wanted to have a broader impact on an issue she thinks is very important, and she thought the petition would be a good way to proceed.

“I feel very strongly in community, civic, and personal responsibility,” she wrote. “Transferring students to other counties is not the solution to fixing the problem within the unaccredited district. The Normandy school district and the Riverview Gardens school district have been let down by their own community. The leadership in these districts needs to stand up and be accountable for the shape that these schools are currently in.

“By limiting transfers within the school's home county, puts pressure on the districts and communities as a whole to do something about the decline in education for their children. These children and families have been let down, but whose burden is this to carry and what will this do to the unaccredited district?”

Stopke added, lawmakers in Jefferson City need to hear what their constituents feel about the transfer law.

“I have seen posts on Facebook saying that signing this will do nothing to change the law. I take that as a challenge and see it as part of my civic duty and my parental responsibility to my children to voice my concern and to be heard. What outcome am I seeking?

“A special session would be ideal. But if that doesn't happen, I would like our elected officials to note that leaving the law as written is a concern to a number of taxpayers and ask that they address this issue once back in session.”

Besides asking that student transfers be limited to only accredited districts that are in the same county as unaccredited ones, the petition says the law in question needs to pay more attention to correcting the conditions that led districts to lose accreditation in the first place.

“The current statute does nothing to fix the issues that reside within the unaccredited district; it is simply transferring the issues and problems of one county to another county, without taxpayer consent or approval,” it says.

“Leaving Missouri Revised Statute 167.131 as-is, opens the door to repercussions that could be detrimental to our communities, districts, and counties, as a whole. 

“An amendment is needed and we hope that you will rise to meet the expectations of our petition.”

Short-term fix, long-term solution

Whether the lawmakers will do anything, and what course it might take, remains to be seen.

State Sen. David Pearce, R-Warrensburg, who chairs the joint education committee, told the Beacon Monday that the issue extends beyond the St. Louis and Kansas City areas, with some rural school districts already having just provisional accreditation, so the ramifications of possible changes need to be viewed in the broadest possible light.

“One key thing is that when students transfer to another district, we have to make sure it is not going to have an adverse effect on the receiving district,” Pearce said. “Districts need to be fair and objective on what they think they can accommodate, what their student-teacher ratio will be and what the impact on their buildings will be.”

He said he wasn’t sure whether he could support what the petition specifically seeks, a limit on transfers to accredited districts in the same county as an unaccredited one.

“Obviously that is a short-term fix,” Pearce said, “but I don’t know that it is a long-term solution.”

A more helpful step, he said, could be for accredited districts to contract to provide services inside unaccredited districts, rather than having students attend class away from where they live.

“That’s a proactive way for surrounding district to become part of the solution rather than just saying no,” Pearce said.

Asked how resistance to school transfers squares with a frequent Republican emphasis on school choice, Pearce hesitated, then replied:

“This issue is too important to be partisan. I just think it’s something that affects everybody....

“I do think it will be very interesting to see how many folks do decide to leave their districts. There has been all sorts of speculation about will it only be those students who are very motivated that leave the district and those who aren’t will be left behind and will be in a further failing district. I think those are the issues we are going to have to pay attention to.”

Petitioners have their say

Those who have signed the online petition, from Francis Howell and elsewhere, have their own issues they want lawmakers to address, and they express their views pretty bluntly. Here is some of what they had to say, along with the name and hometown they used online.

Greg Renkey, St. Charles:

“No choice. No vote. No alternatives for the members of FHSD. The Supreme Court cannot make a ruling that, while benefitting the students at Normandy, penalizes the students at FHSD. I chose my school district carefully because it has strong academic performance in a stable community. Busing solves none of the problems at Normandy and only spreads them to other districts.”

Ellen Huls, St. Charles:

“I live in the Francis Howell School District, and believe the proper course of action is to protect the inegrity of our civic boundaries. School district is a core element of community, both theoretically and in practice, and those who pay to live in a particular community, and call that community home, and work tirelessly to build and better that community, should have legal means to protect it from those who view it from afar, idealize it, and then overtake the resources of said community without putting in the work, the time, the money, the commitment, and so on. It's UnAmerican, undemocratic, and this law needs immediate review and revision.”

Mary Wayne, St. Peters:

“It is not beneficial in any way to the children already in the school or the children being bused in.

"Those already here will be compromised by overcrowded class rooms. Lower academic standards than they have had, due to adjustments that will need to be made for the new students. They will be subjected a very different culture from what they have grown up with without any preparation of counseling to prepare them.

"Those students who are brought in will be subjected to lengthy commutes to and from school. They will be faced with class members who are far ahead of them scholastically. And will be thrust into an environment that is drastically different than they are used to without any preparation of counseling to prepare them.

"Last but not least there will be a drastic difference in the income levels of the two groups of students. This will lead to some children having much, and some very little. The students without will resent the ones with nice clothes and cars. The ones with will look down upon those who do not maintain the social standards that they have lived with all their lives.

"Both groups will suffer very unnecessary and negative results. Other options should be explored.”

Christopher Menley, St. Louis:

“This is the wrong approach to the problem, and will only create larger and more costly issues down the road. Fix the problem where it resides, instead of transferring it to someone else and forcing them to deal with it. This is something that should be voted on by the citizens it directly affects, not the out of touch politicians in Jefferson City who believe they know what is best..."

Rebecca Totra, St. Peters:

“I'm pretty sure the only students who sign up for this program are what would be considered 'the cream of the crop' and the ones who do not get signed up will be the ones who need it the most.

"My suggestions would be to send newly hired staff from the accredited school to the unaccredited school to teach and reorganize the district from the ground up. Everyone currently in the district, including the district offices and teachers aides, teachers, principals, and any specialists would interview for the 'new' jobs. I like to think of it as a satellite campus.”

Judi Candela, St. Peters:

“I'm in favor of fixing the problem at the school that is not accredited, rather than just shuffling children around. There is no reason why Normandy School District can't be a great school because it used to be one of the top schools in St. Louis!!! Fix the problem, don't bury it.”

Berna Williams, Florissant:

“This solves nothing and makes taxpayers question your decisions. Busing has NEVER made sense!!!!”

Mary Evans, Weldon Spring:

“I am concerned about the impact on my own children (in Francis Howell), as new students are brought in from the unaccredited district (Normandy). The first day of school is only one month away, our district is scurrying right now to figure out how they will accommodate these new students. I am concerned about crowded classrooms, and also that my kids will take a back seat while the overwhelmed teachers work on placing the new students, and bringing them up to speed with our program, if needed. Therefore, my children are placed as lower priority, and if they need any assistance themselves, teachers won't have time to help them. We moved to this area last year because of Francis Howell schools, and how our kids could benefit from them. We pay taxes to send our kids to a wonderful district that has worked hard for their achievements and awards. I must also say that I am fearful for my kids, as these students come from Normandy School district, rated the most dangerous district in St Louis!!”

Karen Farmer, St. Charles:

“FH isn't full of perfect children, but I certainly don't want to introduce a whole new level of violence and crime. As a taxpayer who chose to live in this district, I believe I should have had a say in this decision. The individuals who handed it down have NO vested interest, I'm pretty certain their children all attend private schools anyway. Why not assess what could be done to correct the problem in NSD, instead of just transferring their problems to another school that isn't even in the same county?”

Kristel Hagan, Jackson, Mo.:

“This not only tells the unaccredited school district that its okay to be below the standard, it punishes another district for excelling. Every child deserves a chance, I truly believe that, but THEIR parents, legislators, teachers, principals, and district needs to give them that chance! Do not encourage someone's laziness and lack of effort!”

Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.

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