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Normandy board votes not to pay tuition bills for transfer students

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon:, Oct. 24, 2013 After agreeing to save money by laying off 103 teachers and staff members and offering early retirement incentives to 98 more, the Normandy school board took an unexpected stand Thursday night by voting against paying $1.3 million in tuition and transportation bills for transferring students for the month of September.

The deciding vote in the surprise 3-2 decision, which was greeted with applause from the audience at the board meeting at Normandy High School, came from board President William Humphrey. He had said before the vote that he believed the Missouri Supreme Court had ruled that the payments are constitutional, but he then said he had to cast his vote not to approve them.

He said he was not so naïve to think that the districts that have accepted students transferring from Normandy won’t get the money from the state. But he said he wanted to send a message from the district about the state law that allows students who live in unaccredited districts to transfer to nearby accredited ones – a model he called "unsustainable.”

“This is a public policy decision gone wild,” Humphrey said. “The only ones who can fix this situation is the legislature.”

After the meeting, Humphrey said, “I’ve been wrestling with this issue since day one.” He said he wanted to send a message to lawmakers that paying the tuition bills would be “unconscionable,” given the financial straits that Normandy is in.

“I could not in good conscience allow that to continue,” he said, adding: “At the end of the day, I had to live with the decision I’m making.”

“The point of the vote,” Humphrey said, “is to make all those who make public policy decisions take a stark look at what they have created.”

Under guidelines issued by Missouri’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, if an unaccredited district refuses to pay tuition for two successive months, the state would “(withhold) the amount of tuition associated with each transferring child and (distribute) that amount to the receiving district(s).”

Department officials have said the guidelines are advisory only and have no force of law. The action by the Normandy board is the first of its kind.

A statement from DESE, released after the board vote, said:

"The department's guidance document indicates that the state will withhold tuition from unaccredited districts for failure to pay after two consecutive months. The department will take this action if necessary, and if Normandy does not make timely payments to school districts receiving transfer students."

Humphrey was joined in the vote by board members Sheila Williams and Terry Artis. Earlier Artis, had cast the only vote against the planned layoffs, saying that he thought the district’s administration is top-heavy and the burden of efforts to cut costs in Normandy shouldn’t fall on teachers and staff.

“To me,” he said of cutting teachers and staff members, “it’s putting the cart before the horse.”

Ty McNichols, who became Normandy superintendent on July 1, said that under different circumstances, he might agree. But he said that to do everything that the district needs to do to improve student achievement and get ready for new education standards, he has to have the staff he has assembled.

“I would say right now, we’re not top heavy when we have all that to do,” McNichols said in response to Artis. “There are things I can’t do by myself. I need a team of people who have expertise.”

Cuts in personnel, other areas

Normandy officials said that by laying off 103 teachers and staff members and offering the early retirement packages to 98 more, the district would save more than $3 million this school year and more than $7 million in the 2014-15 school year. Its current budget of $49 million was established before the transfer program was implemented.

(The district has about 600 employees. The state's school directory says Normandy had 339 teachers this school year.)

In addition to the personnel reductions, the board voted to close Bel Nor Elementary School, which is the oldest Normandy building, built in 1926, and needs significant physical improvements. Students there will be assigned to other district elementary schools. A meeting with parents to discuss the closure is set for Saturday afternoon.

Normandy also plans to sell unused district property, excluding Bel Nor and Bel Ridge schools; eliminate non-essential travel; reduce overtime; not fill vacant positions; continuing education tuition reimbursement for staff taking spring courses; and expand and solicit outside partnerships and investments.

“In looking at our options,” McNichols said in a statement, “we were careful not to cut programs and services that are vital for effective instruction academic success and regaining our accreditation. We’re not quite at the marrow, but we are at the bone.

“We realize this is a difficult time for many in our district and community. Over the next several weeks we will be working with staff, students and parents to ease the transition.”

Even with the budget cuts, the district needs additional funding to make it to the end of the school year. The state board of education has voted to ask the General Assembly for another $6.8 million for the district, but the reception to the request has not been very positive.

By the numbers

Explaining the need to cut the budget and get an infusion of new money, Normandy officials provided these numbers:

On the last day of school in May of this year, the district had 3,835 students. On the last Wednesday of September – what is called Count Day, when districts provide their “final” enrollment numbers – Normandy had 3,000 students.

About 1,010 students are taking part in the transfer program, including 250 who live in the district but have never attended Normandy schools. Additional students have moved in to fill some spots for those who have left, but the district still has 88 percent of the student population it had this time last year.

Normandy’s tuition for the current school year is $12,000; $6,300 of that comes from the state, with the rest from the federal government and local taxes. The districts to which Normandy students transferred have tuition rates ranging from $9,500 to more than $20,000.

With expected bills for tuition ranging between $13 million and $15 million, about 30 percent of the district’s budget will pay transfer costs.

District officials said decisions on the administrative, teaching and support staff people to be cut will be made based on seniority, tenure, certification and performance. Those who will lose their jobs will be notified Nov. 13, with the cuts taking effect at the end of the semester in December.

The cuts include teachers -- 35 in elementary schools, 14 in middle schools and 22 at the high school – as well as support staff. Class sizes are projected to rise at all levels, with the highest being 25.9 in fifth grade.

For staffers eligible for the early retirement incentive, the district plans to offer payments of $5,000 to $15,000, based on years of service. They have 45 days to consider the offer, which would be paid in February of next year. If all 68 teachers and 35 staff members eligible take the incentive, the district said it would save more than $2.6 million.

Depending on how many people take early retirement, Normandy could recall some of the teachers who will be laid off.

Because of the adjustments prompted by the personnel changes and the closure of Bel Nor, the district is cutting one instructional day from its school year, down to a total of 176 days, two more than the minimum required by the state.

A news conference with McNichols to discuss the cost reductions, scheduled for Friday afternoon, was canceled after the board meeting. No reason for the cancellation was given.

Mission: survival

Before the meeting McNichols said state officials had no input into the cost-saving plan presented to the board, though they have been informed along the way.

“They will be finding out what we are going to do like everyone else after tonight,” he said.

He and Humphrey noted that without any reductions in Normandy’s budget, it was likely to go broke in March. The cuts approved Thursday night are designed to extend that time.

“We have a simple plan – to survive the year,” Humphrey said.

Board member Henry Watts, who was appointed to the board earlier this year to fill a vacancy, said during the meeting that he wanted to make sure he and his colleagues did what they could to help the district stay alive.

“If we don’t do something,” he said, “the lights in this building will be off. Our neighborhood schools will be gone. I don’t want to see the lights off here. I don’t want to see the Normandy school district down.

“I don’t want to see my grandson, who is a junior here, be part of the last graduating class at Normandy High School.”

Union officials attending the meeting said they would be watching closely to make sure the layoffs are conducted according to requirements of the collective bargaining agreement.

“We’re going to make sure all appropriate policies are followed,” said Graylon Brown, a regional official with the Missouri National Education Association.

Judy Davis-Edwards, who heads the Normandy branch of the union, said she is hearing every day from colleagues whose lives will be turned upside down by the layoffs.

“There are not that many jobs out there now,” she said.

Asked for her reaction to the votes by the board, Davis-Edwards said simply:

“I’m speechless.”

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