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Normandy designates Francis Howell for transfer transportation

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 1, 2013 - The Normandy School District has chosen the Francis Howell schools in St. Charles County as the district for which it will pay transportation for any students living in Normandy who want to transfer under the state law upheld last month by the Missouri Supreme Court.

Under the law, students who live in unaccredited school districts – Normandy and Riverview Gardens in St. Louis County plus Kansas City – may transfer to nearby accredited districts. The sending district must pay tuition plus the transportation for students who go to one designated district.

Normandy chose Francis Howell in a meeting last week; the special administrative board that governs Riverview Gardens, which is under state control, met Monday night but made no decision on the question of to which district it would pay for student transportation.

In a message posted on the Francis Howell website, Superintendent Pam Sloan said she was told of Normandy’s decision on Friday. Given the fact that the court ruling came out less than three weeks ago, she added, many details remain unsettled about how the transfer process will work.

“This law and court ruling will pose challenges for our school district as does all significant change,” Sloan wrote. “I am confident that we will problem-solve these challenges like we do all of our challenges – keeping the interests of our students as the driver of our decision-making.

“Like all parents, parents in unaccredited districts desire to have a good educational experience for their children. Francis Howell has one goal – to prepare each child for his/her future. When students arrive from Normandy or Riverview Gardens, we will gladly welcome them and begin our work with them like we do with all of our students when school starts on Aug. 8.”

She said that parents and families of students who want to transfer to Francis Howell will be notified on Aug. 5 about placement.

William Humphrey, president of the Normandy school board, told the Beacon Monday that the board looked at a variety of factors before settling on Francis Howell as the district to which it would pay transportation costs for transfer students. Howell's academic performance was a top priority, he said.

"We looked at the size of the district, we looked at their capacity to handle students, and I believe over all when we looked at the basic resources, we saw their ability to handle more kids," he said.

In terms of travel, he said that from Normandy to various schools in the district was more or less "a straight shot" out Interstate 70 or the Page Avenue extension.

"We just thought it was a good overall fit," Humphrey said.

Comparatively, he added, Clayton was a top academic district, but its size meant it would have a hard time accepting many students.

Asked about concerns that have been expressed about behavior problems by Normandy students, Humphrey said that he didn't think Francis Howell had anything to worry about.

"Children are children everywhere," Humphrey said. "There is no perfect child in any school district. Every school district handles discipline issues every day. Students coming from Normandy will be no different."

Marty Hodits, president of the Francis Howell school board, said he has heard concerns from his constituents, and he has some concerns himself. But, he added, he thinks a lot of the worries are based on misinformation.

"People are assuming that all of the kids in Normandy are coming out here," he told the Beacon. "They're not really understanding what the whole ramifications are.

"I'm a little bit worried about (the fact that) the only thing you hear in all the news media is how bad the students are and everything else. We know that is not a true statement. They don't tell you about the rest of the good stuff that goes on. It's been magnified. People hear this and see it on television because that's what is being reported, so everybody assumes the whole school district is like that, which it's not."

Hodits said his concerns are not only about discipline but also about academics.

"Do we need more counselors?" he said. "Do we need more special ed teachers? We have until Aug. 8, and none of these answers is here. I'm worried about a lot of this stuff. We can't just go out there and buy a whole lot of things. We don't have the money for it."

He also thinks that people may believe -- wrongly -- that the Francis Howell board can reject any transfers.

"The legislators are the only people who can change the law," Hodits said. "The Supreme Court only upheld the law as written by the state legislature. They didn't interpret it any way different. The legislature has been told time and time again this had to be changed, and they didn't do anything about it. Until they act upon it, nothing will happen."

For the immediate future, though, Hodits said schools and taxpayers have a lot of questions but far fewer answers, and the first day of school is just weeks away.

"We started building a house and had to put the room on before we built the foundation," he said.

On Friday, area superintendents meeting at the office of the Cooperating School Districts decided that CSD would act as a clearinghouse for students from Normandy and Riverview Gardens who want to transfer. Under the law, transfers are available to all students who live in those districts, not just those who attend the public schools there.

The process set up by CSD calls for students seeking transfers to submit applications to their home district by Aug. 1 – just one week before classes begin in Francis Howell. Students should designate their top three choices for where they would like to attend class.

Once their residency has been verified, their applications will be sent on to CSD, which will work to match students with the space that receiving districts say they have available.

Two districts close to the unaccredited districts, Hazelwood and Ferguson-Florissant, helped set up the CSD plan but said they would operate independently in the transfer process.

The CSD plan follows guidelinesthat were issued by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to help districts implement the law after it was upheld by the Supreme Court. It said districts should adopt and publish policies on class sizes, then post on their websites a transfer application, their admissions process and how many slots are available at each grade level.

The DESE guidelines have no force of law but are simply suggestions on how districts involved in the transfer process should proceed. Critics have said that contrary to what the guidelines suggest, the law does not allow receiving districts to say when they are at capacity and will not accept any more students.

In her message on the Francis Howell website, Sloan noted that because the court decision is still relatively new, “area school districts, including Francis Howell, are determining the implications of the decisions, and are working to create policy, processes, and guidelines that comply with the requirements of the law.”

For example, she wrote, “Francis Howell has policies in place that define our class sizes. We are currently reviewing these and other related policies to determine if revisions are necessary based on the law and court ruling. Changes in class sizes due to transfer students may lead to the hiring of additional staff. We will know more in this regard when the number of transfer students is determined. Even though we are a large school district of approximately 17,200 students, we have space in some buildings to accommodate additional students.”

As far as getting tuition from the transfer students, Sloan wrote that “we will be working closely with the sending school district(s) to create efficient processes to ensure that our district receives all payments to which it is entitled.”

She said that questions and answers about the transfer process will be posted on the district’s website as they become available.

“The transfer situation is new for all of us,” Sloan wrote, “and we are working quickly to make the necessary accommodations and adjustments in order that we can have a great 2013-14 school year.”

Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.