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Emotional Francis Howell meeting raises questions about transfers

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 11, 2013: The superintendent of the Francis Howell school district expects to have 600 students transfer there from the unaccredited Normandy district – and if the audience at a packed public forum Thursday night is any indication, those transfers won’t always receive a warm welcome.

For nearly three hours – twice as long as scheduled -- a steady stream of commenters and questioners asked Superintendent Pam Sloan and other district officials what they will do about academics, safety, class sizes, cultural differences and other issues that have been raised since Normandy designated Francis Howell as the district to which it would pay for transportation for transfer students.

As members of the crowd of more than 2,000 cheered and jeered at the variety of messages expressed, Sloan at times appeared to be frustrated about how to deal with a situation that was not of her district’s making.

“We don’t have all the answers tonight,” she said. “This is new and uncharted territory for us as well.”

Later, Sloan added:

“We did not ask for this. Please do not make us out to be the enemy. We have to do it.”

But the audience seemed united in one way – impatience with members of the Missouri legislature who were seated in the front row. At one point, Mark Lafata, vice president of the Francis Howell school board, took a microphone and walked out from behind the front table to address the lawmakers directly, saying that the changes forced by the transfer law were going to lead districts into bankruptcy.

“This is not a fix,” Lafata said. “You guys are responsible for making the laws for the state of Missouri. You have provided no responsibility on this bill. You provided no help for the situation we’re faced with.”

At the end of the meeting, state Rep. Mark Parkinson, R-St. Charles County, took the floor and responded. He claimed that the Missouri Supreme Court, which upheld the student transfer law on June 11, had deliberately waited until after lawmakers were out of session to release its opinion.

Further, he called once more on Gov. Jay Nixon to call a special session to change the law – something that Nixon has said he would not do – and urged members of the audience to call the governor’s office at 573 751–3222 to ask the same thing.

And, he told Lafata he should be working harder to protect the interests of Francis Howell.

“I expect you to act like a board member of the Francis Howell School Board,” he said, “rather than the Normandy school board.”

Lafata and another board member, Eric Seider, countered that it didn’t matter when the court’s ruling came down. Changes to the law have been discussed in the legislature for the past few years, but nothing has been done.

“You have had every opportunity to change the law,” Lafata said. “Every year. That bill could have been changed this year. It’s not our responsibility. It’s a shame that the kids in Normandy have to deal with this. It’s going to bankrupt that district.”

Safety and race

But most of the talk during the lengthy session was not about politics or legislation. The loudest, longest reaction from the audience came on questions of safety and those of race.

Many references were made to stories about Normandy’s being one of the most dangerous school districts in the area, and residents of Francis Howell said they did not want such problems to move across the Missouri River into their area. Talk of clear backpacks, drug-sniffing dogs and metal detectors was frequent, as were outbursts from members of the crowd.

In one exchange, Sloan said she had called Normandy and had been told its schools did not have metal detectors. But one parent questioner replied that she had also called the district and been told that such equipment was used by the schools there.

Asking how her three children in the Howell schools would be protected, she said:

“I want to know where the metal detectors are going to be. I want to know where our drug-sniffing dogs are going to be. I want the same security that Normandy gets.”

Repeating comments that only students who are truly motivated will be willing to take a long bus ride from Normandy out to Francis Howell, one father asked:

“Are we going to stop the kids at the border and ask, hey, are you one of the good kids or are you one of the bad kids?”

Frequently, people said that the issue was not race, it was a commitment to good education. But it was clear that even though some commenters shared that sentiment, they were not necessarily in agreement on how strongly race figured into the situation.

Carole Tipton, an adjunct education professor at Webster University who lives in Francis Howell, recalled being at the Hazelwood schools during the voluntary interdistrict transfer program and the city students she taught there. She said that experience can inform what will happen with Normandy students

“Some of them were wonderful, a true asset to any classroom,” Tipton said. “Not all of them were. So I’m hoping that their discipline records come with them like their health records come with them…. Everybody needs to know what they’re getting into.”

And, she added, the law should have a time limit put on the transfers, perhaps two or three years.

“If the Normandy school district can’t get their ducks in a row in that time,” Tipton said, “they’re not trying, and DESE should do something about it…. For them to send their kids out here makes Francis Howell a band aid on the wound of the Normandy school district.”

When it was her turn to speak, Jamila Roberson, who has two daughters in the Normandy schools, turned to face the crowd and said the attitude toward students in her district was harmful.

“It hurts,” she said. “It breaks my heart. You have made your children work hard. But I have, too. Don’t judge someone else’s daughters. I am sorry it had to come to this, but I will be there. I will be at parent-teacher meetings….

“Everybody is not the same. Please do not judge everyone.”

As she left the microphone, she was stopped by several members of the audience who hugged her.

Numbers are hard to come by

Many of the questions were about numbers – how big are class sizes now, how many slots will Francis Howell have open when school starts on Aug. 8, how many transfer students can the district expect to receive.

Sloan and other district officials said they could not give clear answers because the situation remains fluid. But, she said, at this point the district has about 1,000 slots available, and she expects resident students to take between 300 and 400 of those. She said the district has worked hard to keep classes at the size recommended by state guidelines: 20 for kindergarten through second grade, 22 for grades three and four, 25 for grades five and six, and 28 for grades seven through twelve.

“I would love to give you answers,” Sloan said. “I don’t have them. Until Aug. 2, we will not know. We’re trying to assess how many slots we have available. But we do not know sitting here today how many students will be coming.”

She added that academic standards will not be affected by the transfers. Still, the crowd hooted its disapproval when she said that scores of the transfer students would be counted in Francis Howell’s state evaluation.

Cindy Ormsby, Francis Howell’s attorney, noted that guidelines from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education are designed to help districts determine how many transfer students they will be able to accept. But she acknowledged that the department can only make suggestions, not rules that can be enforced.

“It’s not law,” she said of the guidelines, “and in many instances the department is going out on a limb, because it’s not exactly in compliance with the court ruling.”

Sloan said Francis Howell plans to charge tuition of $11,000, and the money would be used to make sure policies and personnel are in place to help the transfer students succeed.

When the meeting ended – before several members of the audience approached her at the front table to debate the issue some more – Sloan thanked everyone for coming and for caring so much about the schools in Francis Howell. And she summed up the situation in the district this way:

“We have a mess of a problem here.”

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.