NORMANDY • Normandy schools Superintendent Ty McNichols sat through a half-hour presentation Wednesday in which state education officials ran through various long-term proposals for his and other troubled school districts.
Then he asked the more immediate question.
Had anyone, McNichols wondered, considered what will happen to the 3,000 students in his schools, and Normandy’s 1,000 transfer students throughout the region, if his district runs out of money before April?
The answer McNichols got wasn’t the one he wanted. Education Commissioner Chris Nicastro referred him to a state statute that spells out what would automatically take place — its thousands of students would be sent to other districts.
When Normandy becomes insolvent, “the district becomes lapsed,” Nicastro said, inside a meeting room packed with parents, community members and school district staff. “Once that happens, the state Board of Education has the responsibility to decide what happens to the children of Normandy, where they would go to school.”
But absent from that state law are any details for where the money would come from to educate Normandy’s students if they’re assigned to other districts.
Those uncertainties highlight the struggles state officials face as they attempt to address the financial decline of the Normandy School District. At the same time, they are working to craft a long-term overhaul of how Missouri deals with its failing school districts.
The school system in north St. Louis County is expected to become the first to buckle under the weight of the school transfer statute, which allows children in unaccredited school districts to transfer to better schools at their home district’s expense.
Normandy was financially solvent and stable prior to last summer’s state Supreme Court ruling that upheld the transfer law, Nicastro said. But the resulting $1.3 million in monthly tuition and transportation expenses has the district spending down its savings, potentially leaving it unable to meet payroll expenses by April.
McNichols has appeared before lawmakers numerous times in recent months to talk about efforts to improve literacy and strengthen academics in the midst of the financial challenges. This week, Nicastro told an appropriations committee that it would be in the best interest of Normandy children to allow them to stay put until the end of the school year.
Gov. Jay Nixon has requested $5 million from the Legislature to get Normandy schools through June. On Wednesday, Senate Education Committee Chairman David Pearce, R-Warrensburg, said getting that request through the Legislature would be an uphill battle. It would set precedent that lawmakers should be wary of, he said.
PLANS ON THE TABLE
Meanwhile, members of the Senate Education Committee heard public testimony Wednesday regarding five bills that would modify provisions to school transfers, school accreditation and charter schools. A Normandy schools administrator told them that even if the district could survive this school year, it would face the insolvency issue again next year unless tuition amounts were capped.
Others pushed lawmakers to broaden the law to allow for more school choice.
“We would like to see the transfer statute amended so that kids can transfer into charter schools,” said Earl Simms, of the Missouri Charter Public School Association.
Inside the Normandy board room, Nicastro reiterated the short-term uncertainty, despite what happens with the transfer law this session.
“The big urgency around that is the funding,” Nicastro said. “If the Legislature does not appropriate the money, the district will lapse by law.”
The state has some experience in having to relocate thousands of children when schools close. In 2012, the State Board of Education voted to close six charter schools in St. Louis — the Imagine charter schools — after years of academic failure. Most of the 3,500 children enrolled in St. Louis Public Schools the following fall.
But placing students within city district schools was a given, considering the six Imagine schools were situated in St. Louis. In the case of Normandy, students could be parceled out to other schools throughout the region within the next two or three months.
PAYING THE BILLS
McNichols asked if other school districts would have to take on the costs of educating Normandy students with their current revenue. Nicastro said it was likely that local tax revenue from Normandy would be sent to those districts to pay for teachers.
“Would it be enough to pay the bills?” McNichols asked.
“It would have to be,” Nicastro responded.
Although Normandy is at the epicenter of the school transfer situation, the threat of insolvency could play out next year in the unaccredited Riverview Gardens district if the transfer law remains the same. On the other side of the state, students in the unaccredited Kansas City Public Schools are expected to begin transferring to higher-performing districts in the fall.
Across Missouri, more than 62,000 children attend school in unaccredited or provisionally accredited school systems, which the state rates based on academics, graduation rates and other performance measures.
Last year, the Legislature gave the Missouri Board of Education broader authority to intervene in these districts. Nicastro intends to present her plan to the board on Feb. 18.
She and other top state education officials also appeared Wednesday before the Special Administrative Board in Riverview Gardens to present the six proposals they are considering as they craft this plan. They include proposals from the state’s superintendents, the Indianapolis-based Cities for Education Entrepreneurship Trust and the Missouri Charter Public Schools Association.
In Normandy and Riverview Gardens, some aspects of the proposals were met with skepticism by local school board members. The meetings did not seek comments directly from the public.
Both districts have student populations that are overwhelmingly black and come from impoverished households. Decades of school improvement efforts by the Missouri education department have resulted in little to no progress in erasing the achievement gap that persists between black and white children, as well as across income levels, in schools across the state.
Some asked why they should believe any new plan would produce better results.
“The gross insensitivity to my school district is appalling,” Normandy School Board member Terry Artis said. He pressed Nicastro to resign.
Board member Henry Watts later added: “I don’t feel that those who are making the decisions are making decisions that are in the best interest of this district. If you lapse a district you can destroy a community.”
After the meeting, McNichols said he needed more time and resources to turn around the district. Results of benchmark tests show students are learning, he said. Behavior is better. “We’re seeing progress already.”
But the district recently laid off 103 staff — most of them teachers — and closed an elementary school to help make ends meet. Though that bought the district more time, it’s not enough to get it through the last day of school. It’s not even enough to get the district to April, when students take the Missouri Assessment Program — the test that determines a district’s state rating.
And that’s the part that appeared to worry McNichols the most on Wednesday.
“Kids want to know, are they going to have graduation here or somewhere else?” he said. “Are they going to have prom? I don’t know what to tell them.”
Alex Stuckey of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.