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Mehlville superintendent says schools have minimal room for transfers

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 11, 2013 - Eric Knost, superintendent of schools in Mehlville, remembers clearly the three words he heard Tuesday evening that could bring big changes to his south St. Louis County district.

Earlier in the day, Scott Spurgeon, the new superintendent in the Riverview Gardens school district, had called Knost to advise him that Mehlville was one of four districts Riverview might designate as the one to which it would pay transportation costs for students who wanted to transfer.

Then, about 6:30 p.m., after Riverview Gardens’ Special Administrative Board had voted in a closed meeting to choose Mehlville, Spurgeon called back and said simply:

“You’re the one.”

The decision didn’t make Knost too happy.

“It was nothing I was anticipating,” he told the Beacon Wednesday. “ I would have expected a little more advance notice. I also would have expected some questions about our district’s ability to accept more students. There was none of that.”

At an open meeting of the Riverview Gardens SAB, Spurgeon had said that the choice of Mehlville was driven by data. Those numbers, he said, included student test scores, geography and Mehlville’s capacity to handle an influx of students who could transfer from unaccredited Riverview to any accredited district in the area, though Spurgeon asked parents to keep their kids where they are.

But Knost said Mehlville has little capacity to spare. The district is beginning a full-time kindergarten program this fall that is expected to take up a lot of elementary school space that may have been unused in the past.

Mehlville has 10 elementary schools, four middle schools and two regular high schools, compared with nine, two and one of the same kinds of schools for Riverview Gardens. Still, Knost said, his enrollment of 10,600 students means it could add only a “minimal number” of transfers. Riverview Gardens has 5,700 students.

After hearing of Mehlville being on the Riverview Gardens list, Knost said he told Spurgeon of his concerns about classroom space.

“I did offer up unsolicited that he should highly consider that our class sizes are not currently at the desirable standards set by (the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education),” Knost said.

“We’re mainly above those desirable standards, which would suggest that we have a limited ability to take additional students. He said he understood and left it at that.”

He said that even without knowing how many students might opt to transfer into Mehlville, the number of students it could accept “would be based upon various pockets here and there…. We’ve got a lot of analysis we have to consider.”

Knost said that after Spurgeon called him a second time, he asked Knost not to make the choice of Mehlville public until about 7:30 p.m., or 30 minutes after the public meeting in Riverview Gardens was set to start. But Knost decided to put up a statement immediately on the Mehlville Facebook page to let district residents know about the decision because news had already appeared online. As of Wednesday afternoon, the statement had more than 150 comments on the social media site.

His statement made clear that neither he nor the Mehlville board had any role in Riverview Gardens’ decision.

“My community has an expectation of me communicating to them,” he told the Beacon. “It was frustrating that I didn’t have more time to get this word out. It was published literally minutes after I was told. He asked me if I could keep my press release off until 7:30, but I had a call a couple of minutes after seven.”

Asked to clarify what he said at Tuesday night's meeting with what Knost said, Spurgeon told the Beacon that an issue with capacity was a common response from any superintendent that he had spoken with about possible transfers.

"That would certainly be an issue for any district we chose," he said. "I think that’s understandable if you have a large number of students who are going to transfer."

If Mehlville gets to a point where it says it cannot accept any more non-resident students, Spurgeon said, Riverview Gardens is prepared to designate other districts to which it would pay transportation costs for transfers.

Mixed reaction

The Mehlville superintendent said that so far, reaction to the Riverview Gardens decision has been mixed.

“There has been a lot of frustration from some,” Knost said, “and from others a lack of understanding. People are saying this is poor legislation.”

The law in question, passed in 1993, gives students who live in unaccredited school districts – whether or not they attend the district’s public schools – the option to transfer to an accredited district in the same or an adjacent county. The sending district must pay tuition and designate one district to which it would also pay transportation costs.

The transfer law was upheld last month by the Missouri Supreme Court, which rejected arguments that the law imposes an unfunded mandate on sending districts or presents an impossible situation for sending districts and receiving ones.

Both Riverview Gardens and Normandy – which along with Kansas City are the only unaccredited districts in the state – have begun processing applications from students who may want to transfer under the law. Cooperating School Districts has developed a common application that most potential receiving districts will use.

Students who want to transfer should begin with their home district, specifying their first, second and third choices of where they want to attend class in the coming school year. Once their residency in one of the unaccredited districts has been verified, their application will be forwarded to CSD, which will match the applications up with the space that districts say is available.

The matches are expected to be announced the first week of August.

Knost said that contrary to the prevailing view of Mehlville, it is a “very, very diverse school district,” with more than 50 languages spoken by families who live in the northern part of the district. He noted that it has been participating in the voluntary student transfer program under desegregation since the 1980s, so it is used to accepting students from different backgrounds.

“Academically,” he said, “we’re prepared to meet, greet and teach students and give them great experiences.”

The problem, he said, is that the court decision gave no idea of how districts are supposed to implement the provisions of the law. Missouri school officials have provided guidelines on how districts could proceed, but they are simply suggestions without the force of law.

One open question remains: Do districts have the right to say they will accept so many transfer students and no more? The state guidelines say accredited districts should develop admissions policies and post the number of available slots at each grade level on their websites. But Knost says those procedures still leave a lot of room for interpretation.

“The Supreme Court decision that upholds the law doesn’t come with an instruction manual,” he said. “It doesn’t come with rules on how to deal with the logistics or the mechanics of the decision.”

He agrees with those who say the law should be changed so that potential receiving districts can have a clearer idea of what their rights and responsibilities are.

He hopes lawmakers are more willing to deal with the situation than they have been in the past.

“We need to see parameters,” Knost said. “A couple of years ago, local superintendents proposed legislation that gave very specific parameters. Unfortunately, politics got involved and all sorts of other things were being attached to the bill. It was kind of being used as a political football.”

Some lawmakers have suggested that Gov. Jay Nixon call a special session to deal with changes in the law, but Nixon has said he does not plan to make such a move.

Late Wednesday, state Sen. Gina Walsh, D-Bellefontaine Neighbors, whose district includes the Riverview Gardens district, issued a statement about the choice of Mehlville that read in part:

"As those of us familiar with the area know, this district is approximately 20 miles away from the Riverview Gardens area, creating a significant burden on students and their families. Why the board did not choose one of the many quality schools in the North St. Louis County area is beyond me.

"The only thing more disappointing than this decision is the continuing lack of action on the part of the Legislature to deal with what is not a new issue. My colleagues in the General Assembly have long know the difficulties the school transfer law will pose to students and districts. They have long known about the failure of a handful of schools to regain accreditation. And although members of the majority party regularly express the utmost concern with providing our children a quality education, the bulk of our time in session is spent debating frivolous bills that address no particular problem, such as the so-called 'danger' of Sharia law, or measures that overwhelmingly benefit the wealthiest citizens and businesses.

"Bromides and empty sentiments sound nice, but what the parents of our state need is action. We had yet another opportunity in 2013 to address this problem; the majority party did nothing, and any attempts by the minority caucus to resolve it were summarily buried in committee. This is unacceptable."

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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