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Mehlville superintendent says district can accept only 150 transfer students

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 26, 2013: The Mehlville School District has room to accept only one out of three of the 450 students from Riverview Gardens who have said – so far – that they want to transfer there, Mehlville Superintendent Eric Knost told a school board meeting Thursday night.

Knost said the 150 transfer students the district can accommodate will enable the district to maintain the class sizes it wants, ensuring that students get the academic attention they need. He said the space available for transfers is available at schools throughout the district.

“We will not overload classes that are already on the higher end, already overloaded,” Knost said in his opening comments on the student transfer situation.

“It is not good for the Mehlville School District students, and it is not good for the Riverview Gardens School Districts students to put them into overloaded classes. That’s not helping the situation in my opinion. It’s perpetuating the problem.”

Of the 150 figure, Knost said, “I’m happy to say that’s a lot more than I originally anticipated. It’s a rough number. It may get a little beyond that. It will get nowhere near 450. I’m just being candid and painfully honest.”

Riverview Gardens has 5,700 students.

Later in the meeting, the Mehlville school board approved on a vote of 5-2 a new policy on class sizes that reflects Knost’s concerns. One of the two dissenters, Ron Fedorchak, said he thought Mehlville could easily enroll all of the transfer students who want to come, and he doesn’t think the law allows Mehlville to limit the numbers of transfer students.

What's the cost?

The Post-Dispatch has published preliminary application totals, showing what districts students in Normandy and Riverview Gardens are choosing as their first choice for transferring, along with tuition charged by the receiving districts. Mehlville officials said last night that they would charge $9,306 per student, which is different from the total in the Post-Dispatch chart.

He noted that Mehlville used to have 1,000 more students than the 10,600 it has now, with a staff that is similar in size. He also said Mehlville stands to gain millions of dollars from the tuition that would come with the transfer students.

“The court did not give us that discretion,” he said of limiting the amount of students who can come to Mehlville, referring to a Missouri Supreme Court ruling last month that upheld the school transfer law.

“We can save these kids,” Fedorchak added. “We can get them on the right track.”

Knost countered that the policy was written even before Riverview Gardens designated Mehlville as the district to which it would pay for transportation for transfer students. The new policy would set as targets the class sizes recommended by state education officials, ranging from 17 in early grades up to 25 in middle and high school.

Earlier in the meeting, addressing worries that Riverview Gardens may not be able to pay for the transferring students, Knost said that Mehlville will not be spending money it doesn’t have and can’t afford.

“We are determined to build classes based on what we can afford,” Knost said, “that will not affect or compromise or do anything different from the quality of education that we currently have.”

And, he added, there will be no effect on academic achievement in Mehlville as a result of transfer students.

“Absolutely not,” he said. “I can look you in the eye and tell you from my heart of hearts there will be no impact on the quality of education in the Mehlville School District.”

Mehlville had no say

Under the state law that was upheld last month by the Missouri Supreme Court, students living in unaccredited school districts – including Riverview Gardens and Normandy in north St. Louis County – may transfer to accredited districts in the same or an adjacent county.

The home district must pay the students’ tuition -- $9,306 per year, in the case of Mehlville – and the unaccredited districts may designate one district for which they will pay transportation for transfer students as well. Riverview Gardens chose Mehlville in south St. Louis County, about 20 miles away.

According to Cooperating School Districts, which is helping to coordinate the transfer process, as of Wednesday of this week, 752 Normandy students and 945 Riverview Gardens students had filed transfer applications.

Knost emphasized to more than 100 people at the meeting in the library at Mehlville High School that he had no input into that decision and he was only informed after the decision had been made by the state-appointed board that runs Riverview Gardens.

“I never knew we would be selected as the transportation district,” Knost said. “I don’t mind saying publicly that I struggle to understand the logic of that decision. ... “We had no ability to agree or disagree. That’s what the law allows at this point in time.”

Riverview Gardens has said that more than 850 students have applied for transfers for the upcoming school year. Of those, about 450 want to go to Mehlville; applications allow students to list their first, second and third choices for where they want to attend.

The Riverview Gardens special administrative board called a closed meeting for Thursday night. A spokeswoman for the district said she did not believe the board planned at that meeting to designate a second transportation district, as it could do if Mehlville says it cannot accommodate all students who want to transfer.

The Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education has issued guidelines advising accredited districts to evaluate how many transfer students they can accommodate and publish those numbers and an admissions policy on their website.

But the department has emphasized that its guidelines do not have the force of law, and whether the law or the Supreme Court ruling allows districts to limit how many transfer students they will accept is an open question.

Asked about that issue, Knost told the Beacon:

“There’s a lot the law doesn’t say. There’s a lot the law leaves for interpretation.”

How the transfer situation developed

Knost began the board meeting by reviewing the history of the transfer law and how Mehlville became involved.

“It’s an interesting time for all of us,” he said, noting that he has been asked many questions about the issue. “We find ourselves in a situation we didn’t necessarily expect, and we’re left to sort through it. We’re not in a situation where we can choose not to sort through it.”

He praised Mehlville residents and particularly students – specifically mentioning students who gave their view of the transfer situation in a story in the Beacon earlier this week – for a welcoming, nurturing attitude.

“I can’t go anywhere without being approached by somebody,” Knost said, “and I’m happy to say this about the community -- it’s all been positive. People come up and say things that are supportive about how the district is marching through this unexpected situation.”

Of the student comments to the Beacon, he said:

“They gave an opinion of their readiness to work alongside students who are going to transfer to the district. Nobody asked them to say that. That shows we truly are a district of character.”

And, he said, their attitude reflects what he characterized as the most important goal that Mehlville must not lose sight of:

“It’s not a question of these students or those students. The mission is the same. It’s about reaching, teaching and nurturing kids.”

Knost noted that he has heard some concern about discipline problems Riverview Gardens students might bring to Mehlville. He emphasized that any student who has a record of discipline violations will not be allowed to transfer, and he said the students willing to make the long bus trip are likely to be dedicated to their studies.

“People that care about their children obviously must care if they are willing to put them on a bus and let them drive for maybe hours to get to a school district that is high achieving,” he said. “Those are parents that care. Those are parents that are involved in their children’s lives. Those are parents that want good things for their children….

“We have very safe and secure buildings in the Mehlville School District, and I don’t think there is any reason to even remotely think that will be challenged by this situation.”

He noted that Mehlville has a lot of experience in educating children who may not be starting where they should, particularly those in homes where English is not the primary language.

“There’s nothing more challenging than putting a student at grade level who doesn’t speak English well,” Knost said.

And he expressed concern for future academics in Riverview Gardens and Normandy, which already are struggling.

“We may very well be slicing off the upper echelon of those sending school districts,” Knost said.

Public comments

At the public comment section of the meeting, former state Sen. Jim Lembke and current state Sen. Scott Sifton both gave views of the situation, urging that the state strengthen communities and schools so they don’t get to the point that they lose accreditation.

“I would contend this evening that you do not build up communities by pushing them into bankruptcy,” Lembke said. “You don’t build good communities by boarding up schools and closing them down.”

Sifton added that rather than allowing the unaccredited districts to choose what district they were willing to pay transportation for transfer students, that decision should be made by an impartial party, perhaps DESE.

Both Lembke and Sifton noted that lawmakers have been hesitant to change the transfer law because they were not sure what the court would do in a long-running lawsuit. Now, Sifton said, changes may be coming, though legislators have had a hard time in the past coming to consensus on precisely what new rules should be put into place.

Compared to meetings in the other districts involved in the transfer situation, the Mehlville meeting was relatively calm, with just a few instances where the crowd broke into applause.

One of the loudest ovations came at the end of the public comment period, when Trey Marlette, a junior at the district’s Oakville High School, came to the microphone and echoed comments made by students to the Beacon, that he considered the transfers to be no big deal.

Marlette noted that new students come to the school every year, so there was no need to think that just because students come from another district, they will not be made to feel at home.

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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