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Normandy says transfer law is crippling district
TRANSFER LAW

Normandy says transfer law is crippling district

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WELLSTON • Several hundred parents, students and school district officials packed into the auditorium at Normandy High School on Monday night to offer state educators their hopes and vision for the Normandy School District.

Some waved anti-busing signs in opposition to the transfer situation that is draining the district’s budget and forcing the layoff of 103 staff and closure of one elementary school by Dec. 31. Others waved signs that read “Fix the Law!” and “Support Neighborhood Schools.”

For about 90 minutes, Missouri Education Commissioner Chris Nicastro sat behind a white cloth-draped table in the middle of the gym floor. With other top officials from the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, she listened and took notes while Superintendent Ty McNichols laid out what his staff is doing to accelerate learning in Normandy schools.

Literacy experts are working with teachers and students, he said. Partnerships with universities and other area organizations are working to improve teaching and increase students’ exposure to science.

Even though the district has the second-highest rate of poverty in the state, “We have a basic belief that all children can and will learn at high levels,” McNichols said.

But the cost of complying with the state’s school transfer statute has nearly financially crippled this north St. Louis County school district. Without $6.8 million in state aid, Normandy could face insolvency by spring, forcing state educators to assign students to other districts or merge the district with another.

Under a state Supreme Court ruling, about 1,000 students have transferred from Normandy to higher-performing schools in the area. Missouri law requires the Normandy school system to pay their tuition, and the transportation for those students enrolled in Francis Howell schools in St. Charles County.

The rush to comply with the law over the summer affected the district’s planning, McNichols said. And educating the 88 percent of students who stayed with 70 percent of the budget is even harder.

The cost of tuition and transportation for transfer students is about $15 million this school year. About $3.5 million in cuts are being made to offset that expense, through staff reductions and larger class sizes.

School Board President William Humphrey told state educators that the situation was shortchanging the 3,000 Normandy students. He called education a civil right. The school board is committed to reforming the district. However, “The educational needs for the families that chose Normandy cannot and must not be ignored,” Humphrey said.

The hearing was the first of two to help Nicastro and state educators craft a long-range plan for Normandy by January. Similar hearings are planned for the unaccredited Riverview Gardens School District.

A new state law allows the state to intervene in unaccredited districts much earlier than before and in ways that go beyond merely replacing the school board.

Normandy has been a troubled district for more than a decade. Its academic performance slipped to the point where the state Board of Education reduced its status to provisional accreditation in 1996. By 2006 it was in range of losing accreditation altogether. Normandy schools were stripped of accreditation in January.

“Let’s be honest and let’s be straight,” district resident Dryver Henderson said, addressing the crowd. “We have not done such a good job in the last 25 years getting our kids to grade level. We talk about low expectations. Maybe we have low expectations at the top,” he said, referencing the Missouri education department.

At a panel discussion last week hosted by St. Louis University School of Law, Nicastro said the transfer situation had underscored a need to transform how the state supported troubled schools.

She also said the conversation needed to shift away from solely addressing school districts and instead focus on how to create a system of schools that work .

“Our system right now is not working,” Nicastro said. “It’s not nimble. And we keep trying to create fixes for that system. So maybe we need to be thinking about a completely different one.”

At Monday’s hearing, parents and grandparents expressed frustration with the transfer situation.

They urged parents to get more involved in Normandy schools or face an even more challenging situation if the district is dissolved.

“Our students need to stay in our communities,” said Shirley Robinson, a grandmother. “We’re paying all this money for students to go to (Francis) Howell. What is happening? We’re losing teachers. Is Howell adding any teachers? But they’re taking our money.”

A second hearing is scheduled for 6:30 to 8 p.m. Dec. 11 at Normandy High School.

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Elisa Crouch is a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

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