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Missouri school board votes to replace Normandy School District

Missouri school board votes to replace Normandy School District

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COLUMBIA, Mo. • State education leaders voted Tuesday to dissolve the Normandy School District, replacing it with a new system and governing board effective July 1.

The action was a move toward a fresh start for a district on the edge of financial insolvency. But what is still unknown is the future under a transfer law that gave rise to Normandy’s crisis.

Missouri’s Education Commissioner Chris Nicastro said the vote to lapse the district and restart was the best option because it gives Normandy a chance to survive within its current boundaries.

Other ideas included breaking up the district or attaching it to others, likely leading to the loss of accreditation for districts that might take on the Normandy students. And overwhelmingly, the consensus was that the primary goal is to provide quality schools in the Normandy community, Nicastro said.

“We have a lot of bad choices in front of us,” State Board member Joe Driskill said. “But we think this is the best choice we can make right now.”

The vote calls for the district to be replaced by an entity called the Normandy Schools Collaborative. It would serve the same geographic area and be headed by a state-appointed group called a Joint Executive Governing Board. The new school system would report directly to the state.

During the vote, two school bus loads of community members, students and teacher representatives, holding red and white Normandy signs sat in the crowd. Their reaction to the recommendation was subdued, although there were groans when Nicastro said all current teacher and administrator contracts would be void after June 30.

After the meeting, the group gathered around Normandy Superintendent Ty McNichols.

They wanted to know whether Normandy would have to continue to drain money to pay the tuition and transportation of students who transfer — such as it has done for nearly 1,000 students who left the unaccredited district this year. And they also wanted to know if he would stay in the job, if offered by the new leaders.

“I’m committed to Normandy,” McNichols told them. “If I’m the person, I’m the person.”

Tuesday’s meeting ended without a clear answer to the question of student transfers — though at least in the near term the transfers would continue.

That’s because the newly formed school system would initially be unaccredited — thus making students eligible for transfers. But the State Board could change that accreditation status down the road, thus potentially cutting off new transfers.

Nicastro said the board has yet to determine what the district’s accreditation status will be on July 1.

Among the variables is the fate of a bill approved last week by the Legislature that would overhaul the transfer law. Gov. Jay Nixon has all but threatened to veto the bill because of a provision that allows vouchers for private schools for certain transfer students.

Nicastro said the department is hoping for resolution on to the transfer legislation within the next week or two.

“That will help give us a clearer path to resolving that issue,” Nicastro said.

The State Board also hasn’t made any decisions on individual contracts for Normandy employees. But Nicastro says state education leaders will work with McNichols in the next few weeks.

Nicastro also said many teachers likely would retain their positions — given that there is not enough time before the start of the new school year in August to replace the entire staff. It also would maintain some continuity, she said.

Tuesday’s vote largely followed recommendations in a report released Friday by a task force commissioned to find a way forward for the district, which lost state accreditation in 2013. Last summer, the state Supreme Court upheld a law that triggered the transfer of more than 2,200 students from both Normandy and Riverview Gardens, another unaccredited district with more solid financial footing.

“We are most concerned with the 4,000 children in Normandy — making sure they receive high-quality education,” Board President Peter Herschend said. “This is the only feasible way to have schools operating in the district next year.”

Terry Artis, a member of the elected Normandy School Board, said the vote was expected, given the task force’s recommendations.

“Of all the boards that (the state board) has appointed there has been no indication whatever that anything (it) appoints can do any better than what’s been existing,” he said.

Nicastro said her department immediately will begin to work with McNichols and other Normandy administrator to make plans to develop a 2014-15 calendar, a preliminary budget, staffing plan, contracts and address other urgent matters. After that, the next round of recommendations will include the appointment of five to seven people to serve on the joint executive governing board, with one chairman, for a three-year term. Officials said they hadn’t decided whether current elected board members would be included.

Nicastro said she has confidence that Normandy will improve, but that it will take “bold and significant change.” One of the items she thinks could work beyond the 2014-15 school year is an extended school year.

“We all want the district to be successful and that means things are going to be have to be done very differently than they’ve been done in the past,” she said. “The problem is urgent and it is ours, not just theirs. The failure is Missouri’s, not just that of a struggling community.”

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Jessica Bock is a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

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