NORMANDY • Normandy schools Superintendent Ty McNichols abruptly resigned Thursday, calling into question who will be leading the future turnaround efforts of the state’s lowest-performing school district.
The state-appointed board that governs the Normandy Schools Collaborative approved McNichols’ resignation at its meeting. It takes effect immediately. Board president Charles Pearson will serve as interim superintendent until a national search finds a permanent replacement.
McNichols did not publicly explain his resignation. He left after talking with the board in closed session. A copy of his resignation letter was available afterward.
The decision wasn’t easy, McNichols’ letter says. “Sometimes you have to go to grow and sometimes you must go so that the organization can grow,” it goes on to say. “Only time will tell.”
Pearson indicated that the board had been talking about the possibility of finding a new leader for the north St. Louis County district, and that McNichols was brought into that discussion.
“This district is in a challenging place right now,” he said. “We weren’t the ones who hired the former superintendent. Once we became the board who was responsible for it all, we began having conversations about if there were another leader out there.”
McNichols began leading the 4,000-student district in July 2013, taking its schools through a storm that nobody at the time could have predicted.
The Missouri Supreme Court had just upheld the school transfer law allowing children in unaccredited districts, such as Normandy, to leave for better schools at their home districts’ expense. Within weeks, more than 1,000 children would leave Normandy schools, leaving the district with $1.3 million in tuition and transportation bills. To offset the costs, an elementary school closed and 100 teachers were laid off.
The situation put Normandy at the center of Missouri’s school choice debate. It gave children in a high-poverty, mostly black school district the chance at attending schools with more opportunity. But for the 3,000 children who stayed, academics only worsened.
McNichols found himself dividing his time trying to diagnose the problems feeding academic failure in his schools, while trying to lobby lawmakers in Jefferson City for support to keep the district afloat. His strategy to improve Normandy’s academics with an intense focus on literacy, science, technology, engineering and math often got lost in the politics of how to address troubled schools.
And then last spring, the Missouri Board of Education voted to restart the district and oversee its daily operations. About 45 percent of the staff was replaced, and the state required teachers to spend 90 minutes twice a week in training.
In the fall, parents told the new governing board that conditions in the district had gotten worse as a result. Honors classes were no longer offered at the high school. There weren’t enough substitute teachers to cover for teachers who had resigned.
Some blamed McNichols for this. Others blamed the state.
“We felt comfortable with him,” said Judy Edwards, a middle school teacher, after hearing McNichols was leaving. “He had an open door policy with us.”
A national search for a replacement will be led by Peter Kachris, the district’s liaison for the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.
Pearson said: “We saw this as an opportunity to bring somebody in who hopefully has expectation in transforming a school district. The general narrative about our district is this isn’t going to work. It’s going to fail. We get that from so many people. We needed to change that narrative.”
In a statement, Missouri Education Commissioner Margie Vandeven thanked McNichols for his work.
McNichols earned $180,000 a year as superintendent and had a three-year contract. Details of his severance package were not available Thursday. Pearson’s salary will be $150,000 a year, prorated until June 30 or upon the hiring of a new superintendent.
Andrea Terhune, a member of the appointed board, will become its chairman, and the board will operate with four members while Pearson serves as interim superintendent.
The financial burden of the transfer situation on Normandy is less this year, though the district remains in fragile financial shape. Normandy is covering the tuition and transportation costs of about 420 children, compared with nearly 1,000 last year.