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New Court Action Seeks To Expand Normandy Transfers

File | St. Louis Public Radio

A lawyer who won the right for five students who live in Normandy to transfer again to an accredited school went to court Tuesday to force the Francis Howell school district to accept all Normandy transfers who want to return.

It also asks that two students who attended Ferguson-Florissant last year be allowed to return.

St. Louis County Circuit Judge Michael Burton ruled on Friday that the five plaintiffs in the lawsuit could return to schools in Pattonville, Ritenour and Francis Howell because the state board of education improperly changed the accreditation status of Normandy.

After the ruling, Ritenour and Pattonville said they would accept not just the student plaintiffs but any students who qualified to transfer to their schools this year. But Francis Howell has said it would accept only a transfer for Mahria P., who attended Howell last year.

Asked about the situation, Jennifer Henry, a spokeswoman for Francis Howell, said in an email:

“According to the judge’s ruling, only the five students (one of which is from FHSD) named in the lawsuit are able to return to their districts from last year. FHSD will continue to follow the law related to student transfers and will comply with the court’s decision.”

She declined further comment, saying only that “as this situation continues to evolve, we will have information to communicate, but at this time we don’t have any additional information to share.”

Attorney Joshua Schindler filed papers with the court on Tuesday seeking to have nine other Normandy students accepted by Francis Howell and Ferguson-Florissant. A hearing on the matter was scheduled for 2 p.m. on Wednesday.

In an interview, he said he was “shocked” by the district’s refusal to take any more transfers from Normandy.

“The logic and what the judge articulated was a clear message that while the order itself only applied to the five students involved,” Schindler said, “the underlying rationale was applicable to all students who sought to transfer.

“It seems to me that the judge’s ruling was very clear on its face, that he felt that Normandy was not accredited and that the state board did not go through the appropriate rulemaking to create a new accreditation status.”

Schindler added that Burton’s ruling “went to great pains” to spell out the harm that students suffer if they are not allowed to transfer to accredited schools.

'Francis Howell is willing to allow those students that it accepted as its own last year to suffer irreparable harm.' -- Attorney Joshua Schindler

Now, he said, “Francis Howell is willing to allow those students that it accepted as its own last year to suffer irreparable harm.”

At issue in the case is Missouri’s transfer law, which says that students who live in a district with unaccredited schools may transfer to nearby accredited schools, with their home district paying tuition and in some cases transportation.

Last year, Normandy designated Francis Howell as the district to which it would pay transportation. As a result, more than 400 students transferred to the St. Charles County district.

When the state board of education voted to lapse the Normandy school district and replace it with the Normandy Schools Collaborative, effective July 1, it also designated Normandy as accredited as a state oversight district. The state said that such a status meant that students living in Normandy no longer had a legal right to transfer, though the state also said that those who had transferred last year could return to their new districts if the districts would accept them..

The state board said it was limiting the transfers – as well as the amount of tuition it was willing to pay – to help protect the budget of the new Normandy and make sure it could survive financially.

Many districts agreed to take the transfers, but Pattonville, Ritenour, Ferguson-Florissant and Francis Howell were among those that did not. Schindler filed suit on behalf of five students who attended those districts last year.

When Burton ruled that the change in Normandy’s status was not done properly, he also ruled that the five students could return to the districts they attended last year, including Mahria P., daughter of Nedra Martin, who attended school in Francis Howell last year. She has not yet attended a school in Francis Howell this year, the district spokeswoman said.

Besides seven students who want to attend schools in Francis Howell, the latest legal action also includes two students who want to return to class in Ferguson-Florissant.

Chris Nicastro, commissioner of elementary and secondary education, said Monday that her department and other state officials were likely to decide this week what further action they might take in the case. A closed teleconference meeting of the state board was called for 4 p.m. Wednesday.

Acceptance by Ritenour, Pattonville

In contrast to the stance taken by Francis Howell, both Ritenour and Pattonville have said they will accept not only the Normandy plaintiffs who won their lawsuit but any other students who are eligible to transfer from Normandy.

In a letter sent to parents and staff on Monday, Superintendent Mike Fulton said Pattonville had reviewed Burton’s ruling and the district’s legal obligations under the state transfer law.

“We also understand,” he wrote, “that while this case specifically applies to the litigants involved in the suit, the same rights apply to all Normandy students who attended Pattonville last year.

Credit Pattonville website
Pattonville Superintendent Mike Fulton

“Therefore, Pattonville will begin working with the Normandy School Collaborative to begin the enrollment process for the 23 Normandy students impacted by this decision. We welcome our Normandy students back to our Pattonville family.”

Fulton also said that Pattonville would charge its full tuition, $14,049, not just the $7,200 that the state says it will pay for transfers, even though the district recognizes the financial pressure that will put on Normandy and on Riverview Gardens, where transfers are also allowed.

“We have doubt about Riverview and Normandy's ability to remain financially solvent through this school year,” he wrote. “The dissolution of either district carries with it deeply concerning consequences.

“It is important during this school accreditation debate to protect all children. It is essential we find common sense solutions that ensure every Missouri child has great public schools in their community. Our Pattonville community is a shining example of how to build a high achieving school district.  Let's keep showing the world how to do things right."

Asked what the district would do if it sends bills for the full tuition amount and gets only the discounted tuition approved by the state – will it send the students back to Normandy or allow them to stay? – district spokeswoman Mickey Schoonover said in an email:

“We're taking this one step at a time, and part of that is understanding what the legal responsibilities of all parties are. We do know there is an appeal process you can follow with the state board of education regarding tuition and we would follow that process.”

The state transfer law makes the state board of education the final arbiter in disputes over tuition payments, but because it is now in charge of Normandy, it was not clear whether it would exercise that authority. A spokeswoman for the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education said the board would follow the law.

In Ritenour, where 61 Normandy students had applied to return, a letter from Superintendent Chris Kilbride made similar points to those made by Fulton. He said the district will charge Normandy transfers the same $9,907 tuition that it charges for transfer students from Riverview Gardens.

“Philosophically,” Kilbride wrote, ”we remain committed to ensuring every child has a great public school in his or her community. We continue to believe resources are necessary to support Riverview Gardens and Normandy in improving the academic and financial outlook of their organizations.  

Credit Ritenour website
Ritenour Superintendent Chris Kilbride

“We understand that ongoing changes with the transfer law and status of the Normandy Schools Collaborative has been frustrating for all parties involved.  We will continue to follow the law while doing our best to provide a high-quality learning environment where every child is valued and supported every day.”

A spokeswoman for the district said decisions about tuition for transfer students will be made by the Ritenour school board in the coming weeks.

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.