JEFFERSON CITY • They sat down to find consensus in areas that could potentially define a bold new approach toward failing schools. But the members of the Missouri State Board of Education on Monday couldn’t escape a crisis that’s unlike any the state has faced in public education.
The impending financial collapse of the unaccredited Normandy School District reared its head multiple times in six hours of discussions. The north St. Louis County school district is buckling from the cost of complying with the school transfer law that the Missouri Supreme Court upheld in June.
Rather than sink its teeth entirely into proposals that could alter the structure and governance of unaccredited school systems, the State Board seemed distracted by the potential headache it may face in a matter of weeks: If Normandy must close its doors, the State Board will have to reassign 3,000 children to other area schools.
“The transfer law is the fly in the pudding, so to speak,” said board Vice President Michael Jones, of St. Louis.
For weeks, top education officials have traveled the state seeking feedback on various proposals that would drastically alter how Missouri addresses failing schools.
About 62,000 children in Missouri attend school in districts that are unaccredited or provisionally accredited — meaning they don’t meet the state’s academic standards.
Some proposals before the board have been controversial — such as a consultant’s pitch to disband unaccredited districts and hand school control to nonprofit entities, similar to charter schools.
Other proposals involve a lighter touch, allowing local elected boards to continue operating failing districts.
Board members such as Victor Lenz, of St. Louis County, expressed strong opposition to the concept of lumping failing schools into one state-run district. Most also opposed the idea of turning schools over to independent operators.
The purpose behind Monday’s discussion was to help steer Education Commissioner Chris Nicastro as she and the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education develop new policy on the issue. Nicastro plans to return to the board with that plan on Feb. 18. The board could vote on it in March.
Education officials concede that the timeline is an ambitious one. And it could be disrupted by the death Monday of Nicastro’s mother. Nicastro learned the news immediately after the meeting broke for lunch and didn’t return thereafter.
The state board’s discussions come as lawmakers are close to finishing their third week of hearings on bills related to school transfers.
The Senate Education Committee is hearing a ninth bill this week that would modify the school transfer law. Members will narrow the ideas into one piece of legislation, said Sen. David Pearce, R-Warrensburg.
“A large number of transfers is not good for anybody,” Pearce said. “If we can limit the number that would be good and at the same time help struggling districts improve.”
Today, Education Plus, formerly known as Cooperating School Districts of Greater St. Louis, plans to present data on the potential consequences of dispersing Normandy students to area school districts.
If this happens, the test scores of those children would be included with those of existing students, executive director Don Senti said.
“There is a very significant issue with accreditation,” he said.
At the State Board meeting, President Peter Herschend, of Branson, said there’s danger in allowing the transfer situation to overshadow the long-term goal of improving troubled districts.
“The cause is the lack of education given to those kids,” Herschend said. “One drives the other. If we solve the education problem, the transfer problem becomes moot.”
Last year, the Legislature gave the State Board authority to restructure unaccredited schools if it chose. Previously, the State Board could only replace the elected board with an appointed one after the district had been unaccredited for two years. (A different law allowed for immediate intervention in St. Louis Public Schools when it lost accreditation in 2007.)
On Monday, some board members appeared to be searching for ways to avoid labeling districts as unaccredited at all as a means to negate the issue of transfers.
Potential ways of doing that include disbanding a district entirely and reconstituting it in a different form, or simply waiving a district’s accreditation status.
But Herschend said rather than finding ways to sidestep the transfers, the board should tackle head on the problem of struggling schools.
“This is a discussion about how do we do the business of education better where we have failed,” he said.