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Normandy still studying budget cuts to help make it through the year

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: While Normandy Superintendent Ty McNichols works behind closed doors to make budget cuts to help his district survive, he is also spending a lot of time in the public eye making sure everyone hears good things about his schools.

McNichols took over as superintendent in the unaccredited north St. Louis County district on July 1, just a few weeks after the Missouri Supreme Court ruling that let his students transfer to nearby accredited districts, with Normandy paying tuition and in some cases transportation as well.

With that kind of financial drain, he has said many times that without an infusion of cash, Normandy is likely to go broke in March. State education officials have formally requested $6.8 million, but that request has to go first through the governor’s office, then to the General Assembly.

McNichols has said that to help ease the pinch, he also will have to make budget cuts, most likely in personnel, since that is where the bulk of any school district’s spending comes from. That process is ongoing, he told the Beacon after Normandy’s board meeting Wednesday night, but no final decisions have been made.

Part of the problem with finalizing the cuts, he said, is that even though Missouri school districts had to turn in enrollment numbers last month, the number of students in Normandy continues to change. McNichols has said the district lost about 25 percent of its 4,000 to transfers, but that count shifts from day to day.

So, he said, even though the district has fewer students, it isn’t easy figuring out what teaching positions or programs can be cut.

“There are a lot of logistics involved in making changes like that,” he said, “particularly after the school year begins.

Fall semester 2013

“As soon as we know exact numbers, we will let the board know, we will let the staff know and we will let the public know.”

Dealing with the public – and Normandy’s public image – has taken up a lot of McNichols’ time lately. In his comments to the board, he said some people are wondering how he can spend so much time in the media and still be in the district’s school buildings to find out what’s going on.

The answer, he said, is that he and his staff are doing their best to do both.

“I’m trhing to get out there and be visible,” McNichols said. “We walk in buildings. We walk in classrooms to see what kids are doing.

“I’m doing the media stuff so our story can be told, but what I’m doing is getting into the buildings.”

He said the district has started an email newsletter about “quick wins,” spreading the word about accomplishments by the district and its students and staff. Sending out a hard-copy newsletter is also an option, he added, but – given the district’s budget crunch – Normandy can’t do that as often as it would like because each edition costs $15,000.

Money discussions dominated much of the board meeting. A contract for heating and air conditioning prompted discussion of participation by African-American workers, but McNichols noted that a company that pledged greater use of minority workers also had a bid that was $130,000 higher than the lowest bid. The board decided to tell the low bidder that the district would monitor its use of black employees.

The board also approved a $30,000 contract with a company called Confluence Worldwide to help with marketing and branding – getting Normandy’s story out to the public. The district no longer has a full-time public relations person on staff, McNichols noted, so the marketing contract, plus the cost of PR work done by another firm, will be less than the salary of the former PR person who left during the summer.

“We have to start branding the positive things that are going on,” he told the board. “We have kids that are learning. They are working hard.”

Discussing last week’s legislative hearing in Jefferson City about the student transfer law and possible changes that lawmakers may make next year, McNichols said he was heartened by the discussion because it appears the district’s message is getting through.

“People are starting to listen,” he said. “I can tell you that, two months ago, I didn’t think people were listening. These people are listening. They are asking questions and hearing our dilemma.

“People are starting now to understand that this doesn’t make sense. They say that. We hope their actions reflect that.”

And the same understanding is occurring in the district, McNichols added.

“People are being honest and open and letting us know what their concerns are,” he told the board. “I can’t fix it if I don’t know it’s broken, so let us know.

“Everything is not going to be fixed in 12 weeks. There are some things we are still discovering that need to be fixed. There are some things that have already been fixed that people don’t know about.”

One problem that brought the most murmurs from the crowd at the board meeting – besides appreciation that Normandy High School won its homecoming football game by two points over Clayton – was when McNichols brought up the food in the high school cafeteria.

He said he and members of his staff went over to the school one day, and the experience was clearly not altogether pleasant. Again, he pledged to fix the problem, but added that changes won’t be coming overnight.

But, he said, he doesn’t have to worry about people not being forthright about the problem.

“The students were telling us what foods to avoid,” McNichols said.

It's been an eventful semester for the Normandy school district. Here's a brief look at some of the milestones so far.

Normandy designates Francis Howell for transfer transportation

Emotional Francis Howell meeting raises questions about transfers

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

With a quarter of students leaving, Normandy superintendent urges community to support district

Optimism prevails as transfer program opens at Francis Howell

Homeless students add complication to transfers out of Normandy, Riverview Gardens

Despite transfers, Normandy supporters said first day of school was 'great day to be a Viking'

Normandy may go to court in transfer case

Small changes could have big impact on evaluation, says Normandy

State school board seeks $6.8 million to help Normandy survive

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