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Normandy Transition Panel Hones Ideas, Lawmakers Grapple With Transfer Issue

Carole Basile

A task force charged with making recommendations for the future of the Normandy School District finished meeting Monday and plans to send its report to state education officials later this week.

Carole Basile, dean of the school of education at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, said she plans to take the discussions from the task force over the past several weeks and draw up a list of recommendations that she will submit to Chris Nicastro, Missouri’s commissioner of elementary and secondary education.

Nicastro is then expected to present proposals to the state board of education, which meets next week. The task force’s recommendations are not expected to be made public before that time.

The task force was established earlier this year by the state board when it directed the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to take over Normandy’s finances. Its budget was severely affected by tuition it has had to pay for about 1,000 students who elected to transfer from the district to nearby accredited schools, as allowed by a law upheld last summer by the Missouri Supreme Court.

The task force has discussed everything from how Normandy schools should be governed to how students and teachers can be held accountable to how the community can provide so-called wraparound services such as housing, medical care and nutrition.

While panel members have disagreed on priorities – some emphasizing academics, others wraparound services – they have been pretty much united on the need for different governance. Whether that would be an appointed board, an elected board or some hybrid is still unclear.

In an interview after Monday’s meeting at UMSL, Basile said that the principles underlying the recommendations represent sound educational practice.

“A lot of these general principles are really about how do we provide both an academic and a strong socio-emotional backdrop for all kids in Normandy,” she said.

“It addresses the understanding that all kids need strong academics, they need strong teachers, they need strong leaders, they need wraparound services and they need all the things that can support them in order to be successful and sustainable citizens.”

She said she wasn’t sure what the state can do to provide the services children and their families need outside of academics.

“But I think the state can, within the recommendations, make sure that those are a priority within the district,” she said. “It’s very clear that we want kids in classrooms, we want kids learning. We also know that there are children who come to school that can’t get to the learning because there are other things that they need.

“You can’t learn when you’re hungry.  You can’t learn when your tooth hurts. You can’t learn when you’ve been up all night. There are some issues that have to be addressed with kids, and they need a wraparound, they need a team of adults to help make sure that they are ready to learn.”

And, Basile added, the need for children to start learning earlier is clear.

“Somehow in the state,” she said, “we’ve got to get our head around early childhood education. We’ve got too many kids that aren’t getting early learning. A lot of that is what’s holding these districts back.”

Victor Lenz, a member of the state board who has been a regular attendee at the panel’s meetings, said he is looking forward to seeing how the task force’s recommendations mesh with the transfer bill expected to come out of the session of the legislature that ends this Friday.

State school board member Vic Lenz
Credit Department of Elementary and Secondary Education
Victor Lenz

He said his top priority will be “student instruction. That’s what the whole thing is about. Without instruction, student improvement isn’t going to go on….

“The other things help, but you’ve got to have instruction in the classroom.”

Noting that lawmakers adjourn on Friday, and the state board meets on Monday, Lenz said:
“We’re going to be very busy this weekend.”

Conference committee meets

(Updated at 7:30 a.m. Tuesday)

Meanwhile, a conference committee working to resolve differences between the House and Senate versions of the school transfer bill began meeting Monday afternoon, hoping to have a compromise bill finished by Tuesday night. By Tuesday morning, they had tweaked the part of the billthat would allow some students in unaccredited districts to attend private schools. The change would limit the option to St. Louis, St. Louis County and Jackson County and would allow other areas to set up the option. Negotiations were continuing.

End update. Our earlier story:

State Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal, D-University City, said that the changes still to be made are basically “just cleaning it up” and resolving some differences in issues like how much tuition sending districts like Normandy and Riverview Gardens would have to send to receiving districts and whether students will have the option to transfer to a private, non-sectarian school.

On the tuition issue, Chappelle-Nadal said one new idea came from Chris Nicastro, commissioner of elementary and secondary education. In exchange for an agreement by receiving districts that they would accept 70 percent of their tuition rate for students transferring from unaccredited districts, that fact would be made one of the factors in determining whether a district receives the designation of “accredited with distinction.”

Chappelle-Nadal, who has harshly criticized Nicastro in recent months, said that she was willing to accept the commissioner’s idea if it would resolve problems with the transfer program.

“The children are paramount,” she said. “Before my personal interests, I have to put theirs first, which means I have to work with Chris Nicastro.”

Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal
Credit Missouri Senate
Maria Chappelle-Nadal

On the subject of a private school option for transfer students, Chappelle-Nadal repeated her assertion that “there is not going to be a bill without a private option.”

She dismissed recent criticism from state Reps. Clem Smith-D-Velda Village Hills, and Tommie Pierson, D-Bellefontaine Neighbors, who said that private schools should not be receiving public money.

“I understand where they are coming from,” she said. “I just wish they were more a part of the legislative policy making. Coming in at the 11th hour doesn’t help you get what you want.”

State Rep. Rick Stream, R-Kirkwood, who has been active on the House side in shaping the transfer legislation, said that the conference committee should be able to craft a bill that will pass both chambers.

“Everything is solvable,” he said in an interview. “It just depends on who wants to give how much. I think we’re going to get there.”

He said he did not think that other issues before the lawmakers in their final week, including gun control, right to work and a transportation tax, will crowd the transfer bill out.

Credit Missouri House website
Rick Stream

“This is a priority,” Stream said. “The speaker has told me it’s a big priority for him.”

Gov. Jay Nixon has expressed his opposition to any bill that would include using public money for tuition at private schools. Stream said that provision has been “watered down,” but it will be in the final bill.

“Our goal is to give all of the students in unaccredited districts options that give them access to high quality education,” he said.

Asked about a possible veto, Stream noted that the Senate bill passed 27-5 earlier in the session and included a private option.

In the House, he said, “I’m not sure we have the votes on the floor to overturn a veto. We need 109 votes, and I’m not sure we can get that number. First, we have to get it through the conference committee, then through both chambers. Then we’ll see what the governor does.”

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.