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Normandy High School

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

The Normandy School District has chosen to pay for transportation to an unnamed district in St. Charles County for any of its students who want to transfer to higher performing schools there.

Tyrone McNichols, who becomes Normandy superintendent on Monday, said administrators and school board members reached the decision to skip over districts in St. Louis County only after comparing data on student achievement, demographics and capacity, as well as interstate access and per-pupil spending among school districts throughout the region.

The decision could be a determining factor in where many Normandy students, trying to take advantage of a recent state Supreme Court ruling, end up.

Students who transfer to other districts would have to get there on their own.

“We felt that if the state is going to demand us to pay costs of tuition and transportation, we ought to send transportation to a high-quality district,” McNichols said Friday, after a meeting of superintendents and district attorneys gathered at Cooperating School Districts of Greater St. Louis.

But McNichols stopped short of naming the St. Charles County district. He hadn’t yet informed its superintendent. That school district would not need to approve Normandy’s decision.

With less than two months before the start of school, attorneys and leaders of 48 area school districts that could be affected by the state’s school transfer statute are working through details related to things such as enrollment, tuition and how much space is available in classrooms.

They are figuring out how best to comply with a high court decision that says children living in unaccredited school districts, such as Normandy and Riverview Gardens, may transfer to higher performing schools in the same or adjoining counties. The unaccredited school systems — and not families — must foot tuition bills. The failing districts also must pay for transportation to at least one school district.

On Monday, the Special Administrative Board of Riverview Gardens will meet to discuss which school district it will designate for transportation.

“This has been high priority for the district,” spokeswoman Melanie Powell-Robinson said.

On Friday, school district representatives across the region agreed on a centralized enrollment process that will largely be handled by Cooperating School Districts of Greater St. Louis.

Students from Normandy or Riverview Gardens who want to transfer must first notify their home districts. Students will not be enrolled in their selected districts until Aug. 5, after Cooperating School Districts has determined how much room each district has. (Hazelwood and Ferguson-Florissant, however, have said they will begin enrolling transfer students sooner.)

If there is more demand than seats available in any one district, there will be a lottery, said Don Senti, executive director of Cooperating School Districts. The state education department has said districts may turn away students once classrooms are full.

Nearly 250 students, most of them from Riverview Gardens, have already contacted Hazelwood about transferring.

“We just want to make a smooth transition for them,” said Julia Burke Thorpe, an assistant superintendent in Hazelwood. “We know families are anxious.”

Potentially, more than 7,000 school-age children living in the Normandy district and more than 9,100 school-age children living in Riverview Gardens could transfer under the statute, according to 2010 figures from East-West Gateway Council of Governments. Of those, about 4,800 children were enrolled in Normandy, and 6,300 in Riverview Gardens, that year. The rest attended private schools or were home schooled.

Earlier this month, the Missouri Supreme Court ruled that schools could not argue that complying with the law is impossible. The lawsuit began as Turner v. Clayton, and later became Breitenfeld v. Clayton. The case involved St. Louis parents’ trying to enforce the statute during the years city schools were unaccredited. The district regained provisional accreditation last fall.

Most districts will be reviewing or setting tuition for transfer students in the next few weeks. Art McCoy, superintendent of Ferguson-Florissant, said his board would be doing the same.

“The law is clear,” McCoy said.

Yet some say the law doesn’t spell out key details school leaders need to move forward. Earlier this week, the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education tried to provide clarity with additional guidelines, such as:

• School districts should post online the transfer application, the admissions process and available enrollment slots by grade level.

• After an unaccredited district selects where it will send buses, it must choose another district if schools in the first district fill up.

• If an unaccredited district fails to pay tuition bills after two months, the state will withhold funding from the district and use that money for tuition expenses.

The guidelines aren’t enforceable. At least one school district has set a tuition policy that differs. Last week, the Pattonville School Board authorized the refusal to enroll any student from an unaccredited district unless one year’s tuition had been paid upfront. That amount would be $14,400.

Missouri Education Commissioner Chris Nicastro said she expected complications as the first day of school nears.

“This really is uncharted territory,” she said.

“I’m very encouraged by the collaboration I see among super in the area,” Nicastro added. “They’ve come together to try to develop a process that’s as seamless and painless as for parents and kids as possible.”