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Missouri School Board Ponders How To Improve Unaccredited Districts

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The current the current transfers out of unaccredited school districts propelled much of the discussion at a working session of the Missouri board of education.

JEFFERSON CITY -- From the start of Monday’s six-hour session considering a variety of ways to help struggling schools, the head of the Missouri board of education emphasized that the state is concerned about long-range, broad-based policy, not the operations of individual districts.

But as board members heard a number of presentations on suggested reforms, the talk returned time and again to the current transfers out of unaccredited school districts and the impact on the students who live there.

Board president Peter Herschend of Branson said the main consideration is to help the 62,000 Missouri students now attending schools in unaccredited or provisionally accredited districts, including Normandy, Riverview Gardens, St. Louis and Jennings.

“Our job today is to deal with finding a better way to manage the education of those youngsters,” Herschend said, “so that a year from now, and five years from now and 10 years from now, the people who sit at this table will say we changed that number.

“Will we ever solve that problem? Probably not. But we must deal with 62,000 children who are being cheated.”

Added Chris Nicastro, the state’s commissioner of elementary and secondary education:

“This is the most important issue facing our state in education today and probably for decades. The fact is that we must as a state ensure quality educational opportunities for every single child that we serve.”

Since the financial drain and other burdens of the transfers have become evident, several education groups and individual districts have proposed their own ideas about changes to help underachieving schools.

At the same time, lawmakers have introduced bills to change the current law, which allows any student who lives in an unaccredited school district to transfer to a nearby accredited district, with their home district paying the tuition and in some cases the transportation involved.

After hearing discussion of the factors in the range of suggested plans, Mike Jones of St. Louis, vice president of the board, said one thing was clear: The transfer plan looms large in any changes that will be made, either by the board or by lawmakers.

But, he added, any new formulation of the law has to be meaningful and not just a matter of changing definitions to allow districts to get out from under the transfer requirement.

“When I look at all of the general comments from most of the proposals,” Jones said, “my one takeaway is that everybody’s trying to figure out how to get out from under the transfer law.

“If we are going to redefine our way out of the transfer law, then we at least ought to have the courage and say that’s what we’re doing and not pretend like we’re doing something else.”

Following Monday’s discussion, DESE plans to come back to the board next Tuesday with a plan that takes into account ideas from board members and their reactions to the various issues presented during the work session. Depending on the board’s reaction, the plan could go out for public comment before a vote at its March meeting.

A variety of factors

At the work session, staff members of the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education presented a range of options gleaned from the plans and the proposed legislation. The presentation, and the questions from members of the board, concerned:

  • Governance
  • School choice
  • Finance
  • Accountability
  • Improving educator quality
  • Supports
  • Parental/community involvement

After the introduction by Herschend and Nicastro – who was absent from the afternoon session because of the death of her mother – the board heard presentations on each issue from members of the DESE staff.
But they also heard several times that though the work session was organized by issue to make the presentation easier, in truth all of the factors are interconnected – accountability is determined by what form of governance a school or a district has, and both are shaped by finances, the quality of teachers and the rest of what quickly begins to look like a Rubik’s cube of education reform.

Governance took up the longest part of the discussion, considering questions such as who should take over when school districts fall short; should the state classify entire districts or individual schools; should a statewide district be created to monitor underachieving districts or schools; should outside not-for-profit operators be brought in to operate such schools.

Overall, said Margie Vandeven, deputy commissioner, the option for a statewide independent district or other forms of state oversight of low-performing schools did not appear to have much support. In general, members of the board favored maintaining district control and elected school boards.

Having some sort of agreement between failing schools and state education officials seemed to win more favorable notice from board members. But, they added, whatever contract is devised between local school officials and the state needs to have real consequences.

“I think the state board wants to ensure that if there is failure from the bottom up,” Herschend said, “that there is a remedy that exists within the department and the state board so that we don’t just say wow, that didn’t work out. And that remedy has to have teeth.”

Jones added:

“At the end of the day, this is not a negotiation among equals.”

Board members also wondered what some of the terms being used in the discussion really mean, like oversight and monitoring and intervention.

“What does oversight mean?” Russell Still of Columbia asked. “If it means stepping into operations of a school, what does that mean?”

Vandeven agreed that more clarity is needed.

“A lot of this can be addressed at the local level,” she said, “but if state intervention is necessary, what should that look like?”

Board members also liked providing additional supports for underachieving districts, like early childhood education, tutoring and more time in the classroom. But board member Vic Lenz of Lindbergh pointed out, “All of these things are good, but they all cost money that we don’t have right now.”

Philosophically, Jones raised the question of whether education should be considered a commodity, like a product that is bought and sold, or a utility, which is a public service available to everyone.

He clearly came down on the utility side.

If it is a commodity, Jones said, people can assume that “bad schools, like bad stores, go out of business.”

As a utility, he added, the model is different.

“When you flip the switch,” Jones said, “whether you make $20 million or $20,000, the lights come on. It’s not a function of how much money you make. It’s a public utility, and we maintain it at a certain level for everybody.”

Attention to Normandy

With Normandy schools threatened with bankruptcy as early as April, and prospects for an emergency $5 million appropriations looking uncertain, the future of the district came in for special attention.

Herschend said flatly that “Normandy has failed. Normandy is a failed district.” But he added in an interview that the state has to make sure that the failure of the district does not mean its students are harmed.

“We will not let 3,000 kids in the Normandy district go off into space,” he said. “That’s our responsibility, the state board’s responsibility, Dr. Nicastro’s  responsibility, and her staff. Normandy isn’t just going to say oh, well, too bad and say bye-bye. We don’t do that.”

Normandy Superintendent Ty McNichols, who was in the audience for the work session, said in an interview that the district hopes its own plan makes its way into the DESE plan to be presented next week. He remains hopeful that the district can avoid bankruptcy, and he says the district continues to weigh possible legal action.

Jones said that the money that unaccredited districts have to spend for tuition and transportation has had a big impact on the whole school discussion.

“The financial implications of the transfer law – not the transfer law itself but the financial implications of that – have really take over this whole discussion,” he said in an interview. “If you could do something about that, you could probably come up with a purposeful way of addressing this issue.”

Board member Charlie Shields said that the transfer law has created what he called two kinds of traps. If a district is unaccredited, parents who want a better education are trapped by geography and other circumstances. But if the district is threatened with dissolution, the students who remain there are trapped as well.

Plans aplenty

Before the state board’s work session began, a number of education groups held a news conference to announce their support for a plan that would let unaccredited districts sign a contract with the state board that would require their improvement.

The proposal would call for such districts to be classified as provisionally accredited as long as such a contract was in force, avoiding the legal requirements of the transfer law.

The plan, originally developed by the Missouri School Boards Association, is based on the principles of democracy, accountability and schools that are student-centered and community-owned.

Carter Ward, executive director of the association, said that the plan “ensures a commitment by the community to provide an excellent education to all students.”

Besides the school boards’ group, the plan has won the backing of associations representing school administrators as well as the three major teachers’ organizations in Missouri.

The plan is one of several that have been submitted along with public comments that were made at meetings called by DESE and comments that were submitted after those meetings were concluded last week.

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.