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After last week's emotion, Francis Howell meeting is calmer

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 18, 2013: Just one week after nearly three hours of emotional statements on both sides of the Francis Howell-Normandy transfer issue, the talk at the Howell school board meeting Thursday night turned to calmer, more reflective expressions of cooperation, collaboration – and how the district was going to get paid.

Only two people got up to speak during the public comment section of the meeting, and one of those was state Rep. Mark Parkinson, R-St. Charles County, who had been one of the focuses of last week’s session. He said he planned to introduce legislation next year that would exempt Francis Howell from having to accept any transfer students from an unaccredited school district.

The other was Terry Black, a former member of the Howell board, who challenged the board and the district to make the best of the situation that arose when unaccredited Normandy chose Francis Howell as the district to which it would pay transportation costs for transfer students.

“The whole world is watching,” he said. “We have a great opportunity to show them what kind of neighbor we can be in Francis Howell.”

Noting that last month’s decision by the Missouri Supreme Court that upheld the transfer law “gave us the order, but they did not give us an instruction manual,” Black said the district should show that all students can be treated equally and be given a quality education.

“I say let’s make world championship lemonade,” he said.

Under the law, students living in unaccredited school districts – Normandy and Riverview Gardens in north St. Louis County, plus Kansas City – may transfer to any accredited school district in the same or an adjacent county. The unaccredited districts may also name one district to which they would pay transportation costs.

When Normandy named Francis Howell as that district, the St. Charles County district was taken by surprise, and many residents at last week’s meeting expressed their anger and dismay in stark terms. Though others said they would welcome the transfers, and some Normandy parents urged patience and understanding, the dominant tone of the meeting was not exactly warm and fuzzy.

One of the most dramatic moments last week came in exchanges between Parkinson, who was sitting in the front row with other legislators, and board members who complained that the General Assembly had not passed changes to the transfer law that could have averted this year’s emergency moves.

This week, Parkinson took the microphone to challenge the board members, asking them how they would have voted if given the chance to say yes or no to student transfers – a choice that a bill introduced in 2011 would have provided if it had passed.

“Look at yourselves in the mirror and ask yourselves, do you vote your constituency and vote to reject the Normandy students, or do you vote to let them in Francis Howell,” Parkinson said.

“If you vote to accept the Normandy children,” he added, “we all know what that means for your next election.”

To avoid what he called such a “lose-lose situation,” he asked board members to suggest language that should be included in any new version of the transfer bill, and he challenged them to make sure to get involved.

“There will be a reserved seat with your name on it in the front row” of legislative hearings on a transfer bill, Parkinson said. “There will be pictures taken of that front row in that committee meeting of those empty seats if you do not show up.”

Show them the money

After the public comments, the board voted to hire a part-time coordinator to help manage the student transfer process between now and the beginning of school in three weeks. It also discussed procedures that may have to be followed if Normandy is not able to pay tuition for transfer students as required by law.

Mark Lafata, vice president of the board, pushed district officials to come up with specific policies to make sure Francis Howell taxpayers aren’t left paying the bill – a comment that brought applause from the audience.

“We can say all day long we’re going to get our money back,” he said. “But it’s our money we’re spending at that point.”

Lafata acknowledged that state education officials have said they would redirect Normandy’s state aid to Francis Howell if tuition is not paid in a timely manner, but he said he wanted stronger language to protect taxpayers.

“In the private sector,” he said, “it’s no pay, no play. They shouldn’t attend school if tuition is not paid.”

Superintendent Pam Sloan told the board that the district is dealing with “a very contentious time” the best it can. “We are planners by nature,” she said. “We have not found ourselves with a lot of time to plan for the situation we find ourselves in.”

The meeting ended with each board member talking about the transfer situation and how Francis Howell can step up to provide education for all students who are enrolled there, residents or not.

Noting that the district has many schools that have been honored for character, board member Mike Sommer said:

“It’s my challenge to the patrons of our district to continue to be a school district of character. We are going to take this situation and make the best of it…. Francis Howell kids. Normandy kids. It doesn’t matter. They’re all our kids.”

Member Eric Seider, clearly responding to Parkinson, noted that while the lawmakers have had lots of time to change the transfer law since it was passed in 1993, instead they have wasted their energies on issues like bills that criticize the United Nations and nullify federal firearms laws.

Instead of spending time on such topics, he said, legislators should pay more attention to funding public education.

Lafata said he is worried that the financial impact on Normandy and Riverview Gardens could bankrupt those districts, and such a result would be only the beginning.

“We’ve got a bigger problem on our hands than just this school year,” he said. “This problem needs to be addressed.”

And board President Marty Hodits came back to the theme that had been started with the public comments: making sure that Francis Howell does the right thing and projects the right image.

“We all have feelings about this,” he said. “And everybody is entitled to their feelings. But the one things we must do is all work together. The children will be the ones who suffer for our misbehavior. It is not their choice to be in this boat….

“The world is watching us. Our behavior is being broadcast around the world. We either have a positive behavior or we have a negative behavior. We either love the children who are going to come through our doors or we do not. We are going to educate every student who enters our doors to the best of our ability. This is what Francis Howell is all about.”

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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