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Riverview Gardens will pay transportation costs to Mehlville for student transfers

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: The Riverview Gardens school district has chosen Mehlville in south St. Louis County as the district to which it would pay transportation costs for students who want to transfer this fall.

The decision, announced at a meeting of the Riverview Gardens Special Administrative Board Tuesday night, did not please some of the parents who were among about 100 people attending the meeting at Westview Middle School.

Bethanie Pollard, who has ninth-grade and seventh-grade students in the district, said she was surprised and shocked that the designated transportation district was so far away – about 20 miles, according to new Riverview Gardens Superintendent Scott Spurgeon, who announced the decision.

“I just think they’re trying to keep us in the district,” Pollard told the Beacon.

Will it work for her family? Pollard said no.

“I’m not going to stay,” she said. “I’m going to take my kids where they can get a proper education.”

The transfers would occur under a Missouri state law that lets students living in an unaccredited school district to transfer to an accredited district in an adjacent county. While students may transfer to any district, with their home district paying tuition, the unaccredited districts – Riverview Gardens and Normandy in north St. Louis County, plus Kansas City on the western edge of the state – may designate one district for which they would pay student transportation as well.

Normandy chose Francis Howell in St. Charles County as its transportation district, causing an uproar among many residents there and prompting calls for a change in the transfer law.

Spurgeon – who has been on the job as Riverview Gardens superintendent only since July 1 – told the meeting Tuesday night that the selection of Mehlville as the transportation district was driven by data provided by the state that provides a good look inside Missouri school districts. He cited several pluses for Mehlville, including:

  • Academics. He noted that Mehlville has been given the designation of accreditation with distinction, showing that it provides a high level of academic preparation.
  • Tuition cost. He estimated that Riverview Gardens would pay about $9,500 a year for any of its students who choose to transfer to Mehlville. He did not have an estimate for transportation costs. A spokesman for Mehlville said Wednesday that the actual tuition cost would be $9,306; he said that in the past the district has not allowed non-resident students to enroll in the district, even if they paid tuition.
  • Capacity. He said Mehlville has space to accept transfer students and has several locations at the elementary, middle and high school levels.
  • Geographic location. He said Mehlville is close to major highways and estimated that students going there from Riverview Gardens would have bus rides of 25 to 27 minutes in light traffic.
  • Experience with transfers. He noted that Mehlville has been involved in the voluntary interdistrict transfer program between St. Louis and St. Louis County for many years.

Spurgeon urged parents in Riverview Gardens to keep their students in the home district and give it a chance to show that it is improving in the areas that caused it to lose accreditation, then be taken over by the state in 2010.
“For those of you who are considering transferring,” he told the crowd, “we ask you to reconsider. We would like to restore academic honor for the Riverview Gardens School Disrtrict. We love to have you. We don’t want to lose any of our students.”

Riverview Gardens has about 5,700 students; about 99 percent of the student body is African American. Mehlville has 11,000 students, of which 83 percent are white, 8 percent are black. The rest have other backgrounds.

Lynn Beckwith, head of the district's SAB, said all of the four districts that were considered for designation as the transportation district were a similar distance away, and all were in St. Louis County. Neither he nor Spurgeon would name the other districts that were considered.

But, Beckwith said, there was never a question of trying to discourage transfers by making the district so far away.

“That did not enter our consideration at all,” he said. “Board members wanted to do what is best for our district and best for our students.”

He declined to estimate how many students he expects to transfer, saying: “I would be a fortune teller.”

Addressing the issue of academic performance, Spurgeon acknowledged that it would not be easy for the district to turn around its academic performance right away. But, he told reporters, he wants parents to work with the district to improve, and he hopes they keep their students in their home district.

“What we are asking parents to do is participate with us and create a true collaborative environment,” he said, “so our students can excel and grow.”

Spurgeon said he had spoken with Eric Knost, the superintendent in Mehlville, when Riverview Gardens was considering designating the district as where it would pay transportation costs, then spoke with him again when the SAB voted to choose Mehlville. He said Knost was supportive of the choice.

But a statement on the Mehlville Facebook page Tuesday night painted a slightly different picture. It emphasized that Mehlville had no involvement in Riverview Gardens’ decision and said Knost had “significant concerns” about class sizes that were already larger than the state recommends.

“We are currently reviewing our educational capacity throughout the district to determine how many transfer students can be accommodated,” Knost said. “In the coming weeks we will work to comply with the law, the Missouri Supreme Court’s ruling and the decision of the Riverview Gardens School District Board of Education in a manner that is in the best interests of all children and families.”

About an hour after news of the Riverview Gardens choice was posted on Facebook, the decision already had nearly 60 comments, many of them negative.

That attitude was also expressed by some parents at the Riverview Gardens meeting, who said they suspected the district had designated a transportation district so far away to discourage parents from having their students transfer.

“I knew it was going to be far,” said Sharay Buchanan, who has a sixth-grader and a twelfth-grader in Riverview Gardens. “When I heard that Normandy was going to do it with Francis Howell, I knew we were going to be far, too.”

Pollard, who said her children would not remain in the district, said she was looking at Parkway or Clayton but would not send her children all the way to Mehlville.

She said she had not seen any positive changes in the district since the SAB took over three years ago.

“It makes me feel not appreciated at all,” she said of the transfer transportation decision. “I can’t do that. They are not being fair to our kids.”

The district, she added, “has failed us, as parents and as kids.”

As the time for transfers nears, calls have come for changes in the state law, including ones for Gov. Jay Nixon to call a special session of the legislature. In St. Louis on Tuesday, Nixon told reporters he isn't likely to call a special session to change the transfer provision.

“That law has existed for a long time," he said, "and there are measures to deal with it. I appreciate the representatives’ request, but at this particular juncture, I don’t think that’s an issue that warrants a special session.”

Jason Rosenbaum of the Beacon staff contributed information for this story.

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.