When Angela Morgan learned about the opportunity to transfer her son out of Riverview Gardens High School, it was like finding a winning lottery ticket.
She envisioned him at Pattonville High School, her alma mater. And she relished the superior education she believed he would find there.
Morgan’s son is among nearly 2,600 students in the St. Louis region who are hoping to benefit from a decades-old but largely untested Missouri statute.
Now, by order of the state’s highest court, that law — which allows students in unaccredited school districts to transfer to better schools — must be followed, no matter the cost or consequence.
The effort has spawned a monumental logistical headache, as districts in St. Louis, St. Louis County and St. Charles County prepare to educate children from beyond their borders — with some starting classes as soon as Thursday. Meanwhile, the unaccredited Normandy and Riverview Gardens districts are left with an estimated combined $30 million in tuition and transportation bills, and about 25 percent fewer students.
The issue has exposed racial, socioeconomic and geographical divides that have long existed in the region.
State policies were quickly drafted, seeking to offer a protocol for administering the transfers, which are only vaguely described in state law. Public meetings followed — often with explosive results — as administrators sought to channel the hundreds of transferring children to designated school districts. Then on Friday, a lottery began finalizing transfers, and by late Saturday nearly all the 2,600 students who made requests had been placed.
In coming days, classes must be assigned. Bus routes must be drawn. School staffing must be revisited. Budgets must be turned upside-down.
At Normandy and Riverview Gardens schools, administrators are left asking how hemorrhaging millions of dollars for tuition and transportation could ever help their districts improve for the roughly 7,500 students staying put. State educators question whether the Legislature will step in with cash once either district becomes insolvent. Civil rights and school choice organizations are watching to see whether the law is being followed to its fullest.
“If the districts cannot find a way to properly educate their children, they might as well put a gun to their head and kill them,” said Adolphus Pruitt, president of the St. Louis chapter of NAACP. “The outcome of failing to get a good education is ruining their lives. I make that statement because it is that serious of an issue. It impacts everything.”
Meanwhile, parents such as Morgan fear they’ve been shortchanged amid the uncertainty over the transfers.
Her hopes of sending her son to Pattonville High School have been doused. The Riverview Gardens district won’t be sending buses there. They instead will go to Mehlville and Kirkwood, whose schools are more than 20 miles away.
“Those schools are too far,” Morgan said, and her work schedule won’t allow her to drive him to Pattonville. But she thinks she can get him to University City High School, so that’s where she has enrolled him.
But because of legislative and legal uncertainties, there’s no guarantee that Morgan’s son won’t be back in Riverview Gardens schools next year.
A SIMPLE STATUTE
The author of the state’s school transfer statute never envisioned it would be carried out.
Harold Caskey, who served as a Democratic state senator from 1977 to 2004, wrote a simple piece of legislation in 1993 intended to serve as a stick for school districts on the verge of failure.
Before then, the state’s school transfer statute was narrowly written to allow students in districts that lacked high schools to attend approved high schools in the same or adjoining counties.
But in 1993, the St. Louis Public Schools district was flirting with failure. Caskey, with the support of other legislators, amended the statute with hopes of forcing struggling districts to improve.
The amended version requires unaccredited school districts to pay tuition and provide transportation for each resident student to attend public school in the same or an adjoining county. It allows students to enroll in the school of their choice.
“It forces the local districts to try to work their problems out before the extreme measures set in,” Caskey said last week.
“It was a fairly harsh thing to do,” said Wayne Goode, who served as a Democratic senator from Pasadena Hills at the time. “It was meant to be harsh. It was a wake-up call to clean up your situation and get it fixed.”
Then in 2003, it was put to the test. The Wellston School District on the outskirts of St. Louis lost accreditation.
Over the next few years, about 100 students transferred from Wellston schools to better ones in St. Louis County. Wellston was hit with more than $1 million in annual tuition costs. Almost immediately, the district had trouble paying and faced insolvency.
The Missouri Board of Education changed the accreditation status of Wellston to “interim” accreditation, stemming the transfers.
“Another option would have been for us to allow the Wellston School District to collapse and then assign its remnants to surrounding districts,” wrote former Missouri Education Commissioner Kent King, in a newsletter at the time. “That would have ended the need for state intervention, but it would have only transferred Wellston’s problems to other school districts.”
Ultimately, the state dissolved Wellston and assigned its students to the neighboring Normandy School District.
The lessons from the experience deepened the resolve among school districts to resist implementation of the transfer law when the St. Louis Public Schools lost accreditation in 2007.
Jane Turner, a St. Louis parent with two children already enrolled in Clayton schools, asked the Clayton district to send tuition bills to St. Louis schools, as directed by statute. The district refused. Turner and a group of parents sued the Clayton School District as a result, in a lawsuit that ultimately became Breitenfeld vs. Clayton.
After six years of litigation, the Missouri Supreme Court in June ruled that school districts must comply with the statute.
But the law no longer applies to the city parents who filed the lawsuit, because St. Louis Public Schools regained provisional accreditation. Normandy and Riverview Gardens, however, still fall under the transfer rule.
Missouri Education Commissioner Chris Nicastro said there have been no discussions within the department of changing the accreditation status of either district, for the purposes of halting student transfers.
“Ultimately, it’s not about districts,” Nicastro said. “It’s how we ensure quality education for our kids.”
Nicastro hopes the transfer issue will lead to a broader and sustained conversation about failing schools.
“We as a country and we in Missouri have to come to grips with what are we going to do with our urban school systems and make sure every child is served.”
Just a month into their jobs, new superintendents in the Riverview Gardens and Normandy school districts find themselves in uncharted waters as they work to comply with the transfer law.
In coming days, they must plan bus routes to schools more than 20 miles away for students they’d rather keep in their districts. At the same time, they’re attempting to map out plans to improve schools for students who remain.
“We will have a job to do to see that our students achieve better at all levels,” Riverview Gardens Superintendent Scott Spurgeon said last week.
Normandy Superintendent Ty McNichols is working to rally parents, students, civic and religious leaders to pitch in to help get the district on the right path, and immediately.
But the most immediate challenge for both districts will be to overcome the enormous financial hit caused by the transfers. When students leave, the cost of running a school district doesn’t necessarily go down proportionately. A teacher must still be paid, whether 10 students or 22 students are in a classroom. So must the electric bills and other costs.
About 1,430 students applied to leave the Riverview Gardens School District, about one-fourth of the district’s students, at a cost of $17 million in tuition payments to other districts. Riverview’s $32 million savings account is expected to be enough to get the district through this year, but not to fund transfers through 2015.
The Normandy district stands to lose about $15 million of its $50.1 million operating budget. That’s the equivalent of 248 teacher salaries, or 82 percent of the teaching staff. The school system had $7.9 million in reserves as of April 30 — not enough to carry the district through the end of the school year.
Meanwhile, districts that are receiving the transfer students face their own concerns. Administrators have worried about maintaining desired class sizes, and making sure they receive those payments from Riverview and Normandy, not to mention ensuring that transferring students adapt.
Some parents in the receiving districts have expressed broader fears of discipline problems with the new students.
Nicastro said state officials will be keeping a close eye on the process. For example, if Normandy were to approach financial insolvency, she’d ask the Legislature for additional money.
“The key here is we want to make sure receiving districts are compensated, and the staff and teachers in Normandy are able to have resources necessary to complete the school year,” she said.
As far as guaranteeing that transfer students finish the year in their new schools: “It would be our intent to do everything in our power to make sure that happens.”
LITIGATION AND LEGISLATION
But perhaps the biggest lingering question is how long students will remain in their new schools, and whether the transfers will continue after this school year.
Legal counsel for Normandy is evaluating the district’s options on a daily basis, McNichols said.
Civil rights and school choice organizations — notably the NAACP and the Children’s Education Alliance of Missouri — say they’re also weighing legal options to ensure the law is being followed.
Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon has not granted a special legislative session to revisit attempts to alter the law. Barring such a session, legislators will return to Jefferson City in January, with school transfers almost certainly on the agenda.
And St. Louis-area legislators won’t be the only ones looking for a fix. Kansas City Public Schools are also unaccredited and are awaiting a ruling on litigation there before potentially facing similar student transfers.
“This is a huge issue,” said Sen. David Pearce, R-Warrensburg, chairman of the Senate Education Committee. “It’s not just a few school districts. And not just a St. Louis issue, it’s a state issue.”
School districts on both ends of the transfer issue are hoping for legislators to bring clarity to the statute where there’s been only confusion. In recent years such attempts in the Legislature have failed.
“What we’ve been saying for the whole six years we’ve been tied up in this is that we need a reasonable solution for both sending and receiving districts that works,” said Chris Tennill, spokesman for Clayton schools. “And we don’t have that.”
Regardless of whether or how the issue is resolved politically, many parents hope to never re-enroll their children in their old schools.
“I’m at the point where I’m not going to let Riverview experiment on my kids anymore,” said Lloyd Gardner, seeking to enroll two of his children in Parkway schools. “We were waiting on this opportunity. We were stuck.”
Jessica Bock of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.