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School funding

A school bus exits Normandy High School on May 3, 2013. Photo by Stephanie S. Cordle, scordle@post-dispatch.com

After turning away kids for years, school superintendents say they plan to begin accepting transfer requests this summer from the first of what could be hundreds — if not thousands — of students seeking to leave two unaccredited districts in north St. Louis County.

But first the superintendents are working toward a shared protocol for handling the transfers, which were upheld last week by the Missouri Supreme Court.

Already such requests have begun trickling in from parents in the region’s two unaccredited school systems — Normandy and Riverview Gardens — wishing to send their children to Clayton, Ferguson-Florissant and other districts.

Districts in the area will “work to comply in a way that is in the best interests of all children and families,” according to a statement by Cooperating School Districts of Greater St. Louis, which was agreed to by about 50 superintendents and school district representatives from across the region.

This involves developing a centralized way for parents to call this summer for enrollment information to help them avoid calling multiple school systems. It involves school districts setting the tuition price that the unaccredited districts would pay. It involves checking out residency claims.

Under the statute, even if classrooms are full, principals must accept students wishing to transfer in. And even if transfers cripple the unaccredited school districts, the flow of exiting students cannot be stopped.

In an interview last week, superintendents of Parkway, Webster Groves and Pattonville schools say they welcome students from Normandy and Riverview Gardens, and would even benefit if the additional students helped fill classrooms where slots are available.

But each of those districts also has some schools that are overcrowded. Webster Groves will be putting modular classrooms at three elementary schools to create space next year, even before receiving potential children from unaccredited districts.

The state law also does not allow districts to direct students wanting to transfer into a particular school to a different one with more space.

“The problem here is the law needs to be changed,” said Don Senti, executive director of Cooperating School Districts of Greater St. Louis. “We’ve thought that for four years. We tried over and over and over again to do it.”

The organization is planning once again to pressure the Legislature next year to alter the state’s school transfer statute.

For now, the group will work to develop many of the transfer logistics by mid-July, when most school districts begin enrolling for the 2013-14 school year. School district officials also are talking with the Voluntary Interdistrict Choice Corporation — the organization that runs the city-county desegregation transfer program — about coordinating.

Last week, the state’s high court ruled that children who live unaccredited districts have the right to transfer to better schools in the same or adjacent county at no expense to their families. The unaccredited districts are responsible for paying tuition. They also must designate one district to which they will provide bus transportation.

Children in St. Louis may not exit to county schools under this statute. The city’s school district regained provisional accreditation in October 2012, which means it would have to receive students if any from Riverview or Normandy wanted to transfer in. The Missouri Board of Education will revisit the performance and accreditation status of St. Louis Public Schools again this fall, Education Commissioner Chris Nicastro has said.

It’s anyone’s guess how many children will be taking advantage of the ruling.

Dominique Holmes, who moved into the Normandy district last year from Pattonville, spent one afternoon last week calling the Pattonville, Kirkwood, Brentwood and Clayton school districts for enrollment information.

Her fourth-grade son isn’t being challenged at Lucas Crossing Elementary as he was at his elementary school in Pattonville, she said. Holmes wants him at a higher performing school, and “I would absolutely drive him,” she said.

Tyrone McNichols, who becomes superintendent of Normandy schools on July 1, said the uncertainty surrounding the potential transfers has put an additional layer of stress on Normandy administrators. They could face having to pay millions of dollars in tuition bills. Because tuition varies from district to district — around $11,000 in Hancock Place and $21,000 in Clayton last year — they have no idea how many transfers the Normandy district could finance before its schools go broke. They also don’t know which of its schools may be left with partially filled or empty classrooms that could further drain the district’s budget.

“If it’s 50 kids from throughout the district, that’s manageable,” McNichols said. “If its 50 kids from one building, it could be a problem.”

And the district needs to worry not only about its own students exiting, but private school students who reside in the district who are also eligible to transfer and have their tuition paid.

According to East-West Gateway Council of Governments, more than 7,000 school-age children were living in the Normandy district when the 2010 census was taken. But only 4,800 or so children were enrolled in Normandy schools. The rest were mostly likely attending private schools in the area, such as St. Ann Catholic School and Lutheran High School North.

In Riverview Gardens, more than 9,100 school-age children were living in the district in 2010, according to East-West Gateway. District enrollment that year was about 6,300.

While area superintendents say they do worry about overcrowding in their own classrooms, most have expressed more concern about the impact even a mild exodus would have on students who remain in Riverview Gardens or Normandy schools.

“Taking money away from them is not going to help them,” said Michael Fulton, superintendent of the Pattonville School District. “The focus should be on helping communities, particularly communities of high levels of poverty. You don’t do that by dismantling the public schools. You do that by helping those schools get better.”