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State school board seeks $6.8 million to help Normandy survive

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 17, 2013: The Missouri board of education is asking lawmakers for another $6.8 million to help the Normandy school district survive until the end of the school year.

Without the money, state education officials say, Normandy may disappear and its students be divided up among other districts. If the legislature does not come up with the supplemental money, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education does not have funds to keep Normandy afloat, a spokeswoman said.

The financial crisis for Normandy has been prompted by the law upheld by the Missouri Supreme Court in June that allows students living in unaccredited districts like Normandy to transfer to nearby accredited districts, with their home district paying tuition and in some cases transportation costs.

About 1,000 Normandy students decided to take advantage of the opportunity, district officials say, with a cost to Normandy estimated at $15 million for the current school year. A spokeswoman for the district said Tuesday that one month after classes began, it has received tuition bills from 13 districts for a total of $796,148.57.

Under guidelines issued by the state, unaccredited districts should pay tuition bills to accredited districts within 10 days of receiving their monthly payment of state aid. If a district fails to make such payments for two successive months, the state will send its aid directly to the receiving districts, the guidelines say.

Asked for reaction to the state board request for more money for Normandy, the spokeswoman relayed this response:

"We are currently reviewing the impact of this decision on the district's funding from the state."

Superintendent Ty McNichols has said that the district, which began the year with about $8 million in reserves and a budget of about $50 million, would not be able to survive with the financial drain from the transfers.

He told a public forum last week that Normandy officials have already begun studying what cuts they might be able to make to ease the burden. But he acknowledged that the district could not cut enough to survive and still be able to educate the 3,000 students who remain, at the same time that it is trying to improve academic achievement and regain accreditation. He said such a turnaround would take at least two years.

“The reality is that the only way to cut $15 million is to cut staff," McNichols said.

Clearly frustrated by the financial squeeze Normandy finds itself in, he added that if the district is going to slowly wither away financially, to the point that it would be broken up by the state and its students assigned to other districts, he wished that such action would be taken now rather than have Normandy die a slow death.

The request for more money for Normandy would go to legislators in January, then ultimately to Gov. Jay Nixon. The governor told The Associated Press Tuesday that he would review the request if it makes it to his desk, but he also said he wants to see changes in the law allowing transfers by students in unaccredited districts.

"The statutes in that area have been a tad clunky," he said, "and the timelines such that they caused a significant level of disruption both in the sending districts and the receiving districts."

The prospect of going under altogether comes just three years after Normandy found itself on the receiving end, absorbing the Wellston school district after it was disbanded by the state because of chronic poor performance.

When the state board voted last September to strip Normandy of its accreditation, then-Superintendent Stanton Lawrence said that the move came in part because the district was forced to take in Wellston students. He said that because of that move, any decision on accreditation by the state should have been postponed to give Normandy more time to handle the influx of new students.

Lawrence later announced his resignation and McNichols was hired; he began his new job on July 1 of this year.

The request for more money for Normandy was part of an overall $6.1 billion education budget for the 2014-15 school year adopted by the state board at its meeting in Jefferson City. It includes an increase of almost $600 million for the state’s foundation formula for public schools.

KC schools want to regain accreditation

At its meeting Tuesday, the state board also heard from officials in the Kansas City school district, which is unaccredited but wants to move up to provisional accreditation status based on its annual performance report score released last month.

The district received 60 percent of its points out of a possible 140, with anything in the 50-70 percent range equal to provisional accreditation under the new version of the Missouri School Improvement Plan, or MSIP5.

Though the Kansas City schools are unaccredited, no transfers have taken place to neighboring districts this year because a separate case involving the transfer law is moving the courts. The Missouri Supreme Court is scheduled to hear oral arguments in the case Oct. 2.

Kansas City officials, citing their progress, want to avoid having to deal with transfers altogether. But Chris Nicastro, commissioner of elementary and secondary education for Missouri, has said many times that her department will not make any recommendations for a change in a district’s accreditation classification based on just one year of MSIP5 data.

She repeated that stance in a video released earlier this month, after she had met with Kansas City school officials. The video, her monthly update on the state’s drive toward being in the top 10 in education among the nation’s state by the year 2020, included this statement from Nicastro:

“It’s important to note that the department has stated repeatedly that we will not classify, nor re-classify, a district based on this first year annual performance report under MSIP5. It has always been our stated intent, at the request of school districts and in compliance with the law, to use multiple APRs for determining accreditation.”

The final decision on accreditation rests with the state board, which could act without a recommendation from DESE staff, but that kind of action typically does not occur.

Last year, St. Louis schools moved from unaccredited to provisionally accredited after Nicastro, who originally had said their classification should not change, took another look at the data and recommended the upgrade. The change allowed the city schools to avoid the disruption and the financial burden of students transferring to neighboring accredited districts.

But this year, on its first MSIP5 report, St. Louis got only 24.6 percent of the points available, deep into unaccredited territory.

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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