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Districts will get paid for transfer students, Nicastro says

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: Despite a vote by the Normandy school board rejecting payment for tuition and transportation costs for students transferring elsewhere, Missouri education commissioner Chris Nicastro emphasized two points on Friday:

  1. All districts receiving transfer students from unaccredited school districts will receive their tuition payments, either from sending districts or directly from the state.
  2. Even if Normandy gets the $6.8 million in extra money sought by the state -- a request that seems increasingly unlikely to win approval -- it is likely to go bankrupt by the end of the school year.

In a surprise 3-2 vote Thursday night, the Normandy school board voted not to pay $1.3 million in bills from September from districts that accepted students under the transfer law upheld by the Missouri Supreme Court in June.

The move brought criticism of Normandy from lawmakers who met with Nicastro at Lindenwood University Friday afternoon to discuss the transfer law and other education issues.

But Nicastro and other education officials told the Beacon that if Normandy refuses to pay the bills, the state will simply withhold money from the district – both state funds and local tax money that flows through Jefferson City – and send it directly to the receiving districts instead.

Nicastro said she understands how the majority on the Normandy board could have voted to refuse to pay the bills.

“They’re looking at their school district disintegrate,” she said. “That’s very emotional. But that said, districts still have to pay their bills.”

Nicastro said she had a conference call Friday morning with Normandy Superintendent Tyrone McNichols, who appeared to be taken aback by the vote of his board, as well as with Superintendent Pam Sloan of Francis Howell, the district where the majority of the Normandy transfers are currently enrolled. She said they discussed the vote and what happens now.

Under guidelines for the transfer process that the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education issued this summer, if a sending district fails to pay tuition bills for two successive months, the state would step in and divert payments from the sending district to the receiving district.

Nicastro said that coming after the board had voted to lay off more than 103 teachers and other staff members, plus close Bel Nor Elementary School, the emotion that fueled the vote to reject the bills is understandable.

“I think the board is reflecting the sentiment of its community,” she said. “They’re frustrated and concerned about their kids, not just those who leave but the 3,000 who are left in the district to educate.”

About 1,000 students have left Normandy to attend other districts at a cost estimated at between $13 million and $15 million.

If Normandy refuses to pay tuition bills that can range up to $20,000 a student in some receiving districts, the state can move money to reimburse districts, deputy education commissioner Ron Lankford told the Beacon. That is true even though the state provides only $6,300 of Normandy’s $12,000 spending per pupil.

“Since they are entitled to that tuition,” Lankford said, “the statute doesn’t care where it’s coming from, whether it’s state or local resources. The district has to pay it. Our position is that we can redirect funds.”

He said the state may take that action as soon as any bill goes unpaid for 60 days.

Nicastro said that her department is going to proceed with the request approved by the state board of education for $6.8 million in emergency funds to help Normandy survive through the end of the school year, rather than go bankrupt in the spring.

“On behalf of the children,” Nicastro said, “I think we have to.”

But discussing the issues with lawmakers at the Lindenwood meeting, she made it clear what she thinks the verdict on the request is going to be.

“I have heard no one who believes our request for $6.8 million for Normandy is a good idea,” she said.

Nixon reacts

Also on Friday, Gov. Jay Nixon met with area superintendents to discuss the transfer plan and other issues.

After the meeting at the Cooperating School Districts offices near Creve Coeur, he told reporters that he thought the transfer process brought a lot of uncertainty and disruption to area schools and he would like to see the process work more smoothly to help students and families in unaccredited districts.

Asked whether he supports the proposed $6.8 million in extra money to help Normandy last through the school year, Nixon said he had not yet decided and had to look at the request in the larger context of the state budget that will be proposed in January.

As far as the vote by the Normandy board Thursday night, he said he understood the emotion involved. And he said that the additional funds sought for the district are part of a broader philosophical discussion about the best way to help students in struggling districts.

“I think that underlying philosophical discussion is one worth having,” he said.

Nixon added that the ability to transfer must be matched by improvements in such districts.

“If we continue to have the option to transfer,” he said, “we should also have the option to provide intensive help to districts.”

He praised receiving districts for welcoming students who have taken long bus rides to improve their education, and he said he wanted to make sure they have the best schooling possible.

“We are committed to continue to support and improve school districts in the state,” Nixon said. “We believe in public education. We’re not going to give up.”

Friday evening, the Normandy district released this statement on the action Thursday night:

"Due to the magnitude of the cost of the student transfer program, in light of our goal to regain full accreditation, the Normandy School District Board of Education voted 3-2 ... not to pay the tuition and transportation costs for the month of September. The board understands the state will appropriate the necessary funding from state aid designated for Normandy students.

"The state-mandated student transfer program has placed an unexpected burden on the district’s 2013-2014 operating budget. The estimated cost equals $13 million to $15 million this school year, which is 30 percent of our budget. This unprecedented expenditure renders it virtually impossible for us to educate the 88 percent of students remaining in Normandy schools and simultaneously regain accreditation. As a result of the expenditure, the board approved a financial measure that includes the layoff of more than 100 employees and the closure of an elementary school.

"We are committed to our students who have remained in Normandy Schools as well as those who opted to transfer to other districts. We will remain in conversation with our state legislative delegation and the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education as we continue to examine our options in this matter."

Resistance from legislators

Based on comments from lawmakers in the meeting, Nicastro is reading the situation correctly regarding the request for more money for Normandy.

State Sen. Scott Rupp, R-Wentzville, told her that replacing the elected Normandy school board with a special administrative board appointed by the state would be a good step toward reassuring people that the district can turn things around.

“It would send a real good message to legislators that we should invest $6.8 million in this problem because you stepped in,” Rupp said. “I don’t know how we would get supplemental money approved unless you stepped in and disbanded the board and put in an SAB.”

But Nicastro said that while a new state law would allow DESE and the state board of education to take such action, she wasn’t sure it would change much. She cited the situation in Riverview Gardens, the area’s other unaccredited school districts, where an SAB has been in charge for the past few years – and where Nicastro once served as superintendent.

“The SAB in Riverview Gardens has not so far proved to be particularly effective,” she said.

In the present situation, Rupp said in an interview before the meeting, Normandy board members “didn’t help themselves last night.”

He added:

“I want to make sure that Francis Howell is taken care of because we have been providing a good education for those kids.”

Noting that the law allowing the state to step in and direct operations in Normandy did not take effect until Aug. 28 – two weeks after the start of the current school year – Nicastro said it wouldn’t have made much sense to bring such drastic disruption to a district right after classes had begun.

State Rep. Mark Parkinson, R-St. Charles County, asked Nicastro why Normandy was allowed to be provisionally accredited for so long before losing its accreditation last year. And, he added, there is no reason to keep the district alive any longer.

Nicastro responded that even if Normandy is dissolved and its students assigned to surrounding districts, the alternatives are not all that attractive.

She noted that districts in the area – St. Louis, Jennings, University City, Ritenour – currently are either provisionally accredited or on the bubble.

The problem, she said, goes wider and deeper than simply sending students from one district to another.

“I don’t believe our current system of urban education works,” Nicastro said, adding:

“I believe the system itself is so inherently broken that I’m not sure that whatever leader, no matter how effective, or a board of any kind can overcome that systemic failure…. Is that an answer to disperse 4,000 kids to districts that are struggling? I’m not sure that’s an answer.”

In an earlier interview, Parkinson said:

“The Normandy school board is doing everything it can to render itself irrelevant.”

At the Lindenwood session, Parkinson said any parents who have kept their children in Normandy schools hasn’t been paying attention to a situation that has been deteriorating for some time. To that, state Rep. Rick Stream, R-Kirkwood, responded that sometimes, moving students elsewhere isn’t an attractive option.

“Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t know,” he said.

“We owe it to those parents so we can give those kids a quality education where they live.”

As far as any changes to the transfer law, Nicastro repeated options she had testified about at a legislative hearing in Jefferson City earlier this month.

In the short term, she said transfer tuition should be standardized and reduced to about $7,000. She also said DESE should get authority to make its suggested guidelines on transfers part of the law.

Long term, she said, Missouri has to take more effective steps to ensure top-notch teaching in districts with a long history of failure.

“Ultimately,” she said, “whatever we do needs to focus on providing options for children in every community for quality education where they live.”

Lawmakers were concerned about the timing of any suggested fixes that Nicastro and her department might propose. She assured them that public meetings required by the new state law before the state can step in and manage failing districts are already being held or scheduled, and she promised to work closely with Nixon’s office to make sure solutions receive support from both the executive and the legislative branch.

She also pointed out that an outside consultant studying the Kansas City schools – which are also unaccredited – is due in January. Its research is expected to be applicable to schools in St. Louis and elsewhere as well as in Kansas City.

In the end, Nicastro said, districts have to end their complacency and their excuses about why some students aren’t learning.

“We can’t control the parents,” she said. “We can’t control their environment. All we can control is the child’s education.”

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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