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Study Projects Financial, Educational Impact Of School Transfers

Don Senti, executive director, EducationPlus
EducationPlus website

If Normandy School District goes bankrupt and its students are sent to other area schools, the effect would be dramatic both financially and educationally, according to a study released Tuesday by the group EducationPlus.

Don Senti, executive director of the group made up of area school superintendents – formerly known as Cooperating School Districts – said that the demise of Normandy would create a domino effect among other districts that might be on the borderline of moving down the accreditation scale, either to provisionally accredited or unaccredited.

And, the group’s study shows, districts that receive Normandy students stand to lose state aid and may have to raise their local tax rates to make up the difference.

Senti told a news conference that he hopes the state board of education and the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, which are currently working on a plan to help unaccredited school districts, and lawmakers who are debating the same issue, will take the study to heart, adopt its recommendations and not ignore its implications.

Otherwise, he said, the damage could reverberate throughout Missouri.

“This is not just a St. Louis-Kansas City-urban issue,” Senti said. “This is a statewide issue.”

State aid, local taxes and accreditation

The EducationPlus report laid out in great detail what would happen if Normandy becomes bankrupt and the district lapses, as projections have said could happen as early as April 1. According to state education officials, a district becomes bankrupt as soon as it is no able longer to provide services to students.

Normandy has said its budget is being eroded by the payments of as much as $1.5 million a month it has to send to other districts for tuition and transportation for the 1,000 students attending class elsewhere. About 3,000 students have stayed in Normandy, but if the district lapses, they would be assigned immediately to other area districts. They wouldn't be able to finish the school year in Normandy.

In many cases, districts adjacent to Normandy, including St. Louis, University City, Jennings and Ferguson-Florissant, are already provisionally accredited or have scored so low in their first report under Missouri’s latest evaluation system that they could fall into that category or lower.

State officials say Normandy students could be placed anywhere, and districts would not have the discretion to accept or reject them.

The EducationPlus report was based on the assumption that all students reassigned from Normandy would go to the same district, and Normandy’s current $25 million a year in state aid would be dispersed as well.

The study’s chart shows that depending on a district’s current level of aid and how much it would get from Normandy’s share, some districts could lose several million dollars that would have to be made up by an increase in the local tax rate.

Because of the complexities of the foundation formula, in Parkway, for example, the study shows a loss of $22.7 million; Pattonville would lose $12.4 million; Ladue would lose $14.1 million and Clayton $12.9 million. Districts like those that are relatively richer are restricted in the amount of state aid they receive, and the EducationPlus report said that such inequities in the state’s foundation formula are not designed to take consolidation of districts into effect.

In terms of the negative effects on districts’ accreditation, the report said that based on last year performance report under the first year of the Missouri School Improvement Program, St. Louis Public Schools' score was already in the unaccredited category,  and Ferguson-Florissant, Jennings and U. City were in the provisionally accredited range.

If the Normandy students were assigned to those districts, the report projected that all four would become unaccredited. Others – including Bayless, Hancock Place, Hazelwood, Maplewood-Richmond Heights, Orchard Farm,Pattonville, Ritenour, St. Charles and Valley Park – could sink into provisionally accredited territory if they received Normandy’s students, the study said.

Under MSIP5, the state has said it would need two and probably three years of data to determine new accreditation status for districts, so no such movement would likely take place before 2015. But Senti and others who attended Tuesday morning’s news conference said they were concerned about a chain reaction, where one district’s poor performance could affect the ranking of others.

The report also highlighted the correlation between poverty and poor academic performance.

“Poverty is not an excuse,” it said, “but a reality faced by most struggling schools. It is part of the community context when creating solutions to help students achieve.”

A path to excellence

At the news conference, Senti noted that no one should be surprised that the student transfers have resulted in financial problems for Normandy. Back in 2012, when the transfer law was the subject of a suit being heard in St. Louis County Circuit Court, a study projectedthat the number of students expected to leave the St. Louis Public Schools would bankrupt the district.

When the city schools regained provisional accreditation later that year, it escaped possible transfers, at least temporarily. But Senti and others pointed out that the same factors that could have affected St. Louis Public Schools have now hit Normandy.

“They knew this would not be sustainable,” Senti said.

Beyond the financial issue, the superintendents who attended the conference said that the Normandy students would be hurt in others ways if they are assigned to schools away from their homes.

“The children of Normandy would suffer immensely if they didn’t have a neighborhood school to go to,” said Mike Fulton, superintendent of the Pattonville School District.

Normandy Superintendent Ty McNichols noted that at a daylong meeting in Jefferson City Monday, the state school board discussed its experience with lapsed school districts. The most recent example, he noted, was a district in rural Missouri with just 88 students that was dissolved back in the mid-1990s. That process took months, he said.

Credit Normandy website
Ty McNichols

By contrast, McNichols said, if Normandy has to shut down on April 1, 4,000 students will be affected and the timetable will be much shorter.

He said he is heartened by discussions that indicate lawmakers may be warming up to the idea of approving an additional $5 million requested by Gov. Jay Nixon that would let Normandy finish the school year. Before, McNichols said, talk was that there was no chance the emergency funding would be approved. Now, “I’m not hearing it’s not going to happen.”

“I’m optimistic,” McNichols said. “People are starting to understand the story.”

Asked whether it would be possible for Normandy students to stay put and for neighboring districts to send teachers and personnel into those schools to finish out the school year, McNichols pointed out that the looming dissolution of the district isn’t about academics, it’s about money.

“They can send all the teachers they want to support us,” he said, “but it’s still a financial issue.”

Senti and the superintendents presented an updated plan called “A New Path To Excellence," which is one of several proposals presented to state officials.

Its basic principles include an emphasis on local control of schools, which the group said helps build and maintain strong communities. It calls for early intervention for schools that are struggling and wants the state’s focus to be on individual schools rather than districts.

The report also points to the strong correlation between poverty and underachieving schools and wants to make sure that more education dollars go toward classroom instruction rather than transportation of students out of unaccredited school districts.

The report’s fundamental premise: “Every student matters, every school matters, every community matters.”

And its conclusion:

“We are dealing with a statewide issue impacting urban, suburban and rural schools. We must act now. Without a change in state policy and a new way of addressing struggling schools, the children in Missouri will be negatively impacted long into the future.”

The plan is one of many being weighed by DESE as officials put together a draft plan for unaccredited districts that is scheduled to be presented to the state board at a meeting next Tuesday.

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.