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Former Normandy Superintendent Will Get Severance Payout

Charles Pearson, seated, talks with Superintendent Ty McNichols.
Dale Singer | St. Louis Public Radio

As the Normandy Schools Collaborative begins the process of finding a replacement for Superintendent Ty McNichols, its board is finalizing details of a severance package and educators are wondering who might be available to take his place.

McNichols resigned last week as the state-appointed Joint Executive Governing Board was considering a search process to find a new person to lead the district, which had posted the worst evaluation score in Missouri last year. He had been on the job for a little more than 18 months, a period marked by the beginning of the transfer program out of unaccredited districts, the dissolution of the old Normandy district and then the creation of the new collaborative by the state board of education.

Charles Pearson, who had been one of the five members appointed to the governing board, resigned that post after taking over as interim superintendent of the district. He will be paid $150,000 a year, pro-rated depending on how many months he serves. That figure is $30,000 less than the annual salary for McNichols, who was working without a contract.

A district spokeswoman said details of the severance package for McNichols were being worked out. Asked why he received severance, because he resigned and had no contract, she issued this statement:

“The resignation of Dr. McNichols was a mutual decision by both the superintendent and the JEGB. Although final details are still being negotiated, the JEGB will provide a severance package to Dr. McNichols. This procedure is not uncommon and is almost identical to other separation agreements between a school district and its superintendent.

“In the state of Missouri, superintendents are considered ‘at will’ employees. However, there are many factors that give an ‘at will’ employee the right to sue and claim that members of a school board acted wrongfully. A severance agreement is a payment for a waiver of any claims a person may have against their former district.”

But a spokeswoman for the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education disputed part of that statement. She said superintendents who do have contracts are not considered "at will" employees.

Waiting for Superman

McNichols has not been available for comment on his departure. Pearson said after last week’s meeting of Normandy’s governing board that the district will be looking for someone “who has had more experience around transforming a district."

The search for a new superintendent is being planned by Peter Kachris, who has acted as the liaison between Normandy and the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

Kachris said in an interview that the first step in the process will be to solicit from the staff and the community what they would like to see in McNichols’ successor. He hopes that effort can be concluded in about two weeks, and the results presented to the board. At the same time, he plans to evaluate what search firm should be hired to look nationwide for a new superintendent.

'Every time a district goes through a search, at some level people are waiting for Superman. That's the reality.' -- Peter Kachris, head of the search for a new Normandy superintendent

Asked where the money will come from in a lean Normandy budget, Kachris said the district would have to reallocate money from some other area for an unexpected expense. “You make choices,” he said.

He said he didn’t want to speak for the board in terms of what priorities Normandy would have, but in general he listed these qualities:

  • Experience working in a district with many poor students,
  • Success in improving student test scores and academic achievement,
  • The ability to engage a community that “has gone through a lot of 'Sturm und Drang'” … and is "seen as being responsive to those needs.”
  • Understanding of how to run a district on a limited budget.

Responding to a comment that it sounded like Normandy is waiting for a Superman in the front office, Kachris said:
“Every time a district goes through a search, at some level people are waiting for Superman. That’s the reality.”

Risks and critical stakes

Whether a Superman with that type of experience will be available – and willing to commit to Normandy – is an open question.

Carole Basile, the dean of the college of education at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, called McNichols’ departure “unfortunate,” but said that ultimately, “whatever is best for Normandy is best.

“People have to make the kind of individual decisions for themselves and other organizations that make sense for the times.”

Asked whether Normandy is likely to find someone who fits the description of what Pearson said the district needs, Basile replied:

Carole Basile
Credit UMSL
Carole Basile

“I hope there’s somebody out there who is a risk taker and who really understands the critical stakes in Normandy and is willing to come in an tackle this thing. And I also hope the community and the legislature can get behind the leader who comes in.”

Did McNichols have that kind of support?

“We clearly don’t have a transfer law that’s working for all kids,” Basile said, “so no.”

She noted that she has not been closely involved with Normandy since her task force ended last year, but added:

“I believe the board and DESE, as long as they were involved, had to decide whether they had the right leader and the right leader for the time. I think it came down to a decision about that, for them and for Ty personally.

“I think you can be a good leader. Whether you’re the right leader in the right place at the right time, sometimes it’s just not a match.”

And coming up with that match now won’t be easy, either.

“It’s going to be extremely to find somebody to come in here at this time and find the kind of leader they want,” said Roger Kurtz, who heads the Missouri Association of School Administrators. “It’s just a really difficult position to hire.”

Kurtz said he was surprised at McNichols’ departure, but understands the difficulty of what he had gone through since taking over at Normandy on July 2013, just a few weeks after the Missouri Supreme Court upheld the state’s transfer law. That opinion allowed about 1,000 Normandy students to leave last year, taking with them money to pay for tuition and in some cases transportation to their new accredited school; this year, that number is down to about 420.

“I have a lot of respect for Ty and what he was dealing with over last few years,” Kurtz said. “I understand it takes a toll on a person, especially in that position. I’m sorry to see him leave.”

Now, he says, the district is left with a tough task.

“I’m sure there are people out there that would like a good challenge and would like to prove themselves in a turnaround situation,” he said. “I’m not aware of them, but I’m sure there’s somebody out there.”

But, he added, “If somebody is going to make a move from a long distance or even within the state of Missouri, they will want to be assured they have more than just a one-year contract.”

Dryver Henderson, who heads a group known as the Normandy Schools Town Hall Organization, said the group will present to Pearson a list of changes it would like to see now that he is in charge of the district. Henderson has been critical of many of the actions taken by the state in its dealings with Normandy.

He noted that at a recent meeting of the state board of education in Jefferson City, districts similar to Normandy -- including Riverview Gardens, which is now the only unaccredited district in the state, and Jennings, which has improved  its performance to move into fully accredited range – talked about how they had managed to improve.

If Normandy had undertaken similar measures, Henderson said, “it might well have produced a different result for Normandy than its recent record of decline and underperformance.”

Follow Dale Singer on Twitter: @Dalesinger

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.