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Nixon vetoes school bill, saying it doesn't solve transfer problems

File | St. Louis Public Radio

Updated at 4:10 p.m. with Nixon news conference:

Gov. Jay Nixon said Friday he is vetoing this year’s attempt at a school transfer bill because it doesn’t solve the problems of unaccredited Missouri school districts and it creates new difficulties for public education.

At Ritenour High School Friday afternoon, he called the bill "a leaky lifeboat on a stormy sea." He said it grew from a reasonable attempt to fix problems with the transfer law into a bloated bill with expensive voucher schemes that neglected accountability. Without the tuition caps that the unaccredited Normandy and Riverview Gardens districts sought, Nixon added, the bill is a "formula for financial disaster."

The legislation, HB42, passed in May. Since then, education groups have lobbied Nixon on both sides, with some urging him to sign it because the bill would provide more choices for students in struggling schools, and others saying he should veto the bill because it would spread an already underfunded school budget even further.

The bill passed with a near veto-proof majority in the Senate but fell far short of that margin in the House, making any attempt to override the veto doubtful.

Nixon’s veto marked the second straight year that the governor rejected attempts by the General Assembly to address problems that arose since 2013 when the Missouri Supreme Court upheld a law allowing students living in unaccredited school districts to transfer to accredited districts, with their home districts footing the bill.

The two years of transfers from Normandy and Riverview Gardens have placed a heavy strain on their budgets. Both those districts and the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education had hoped the legislation would limit the amount of tuition that receiving districts could charge, but such a cap was not part of the final bill sent to Nixon.

Instead, the now-defunct bill would have accredited individual schools, not just districts, and it would have expanded the options of students in those schools to include more charter and virtual schools that would be funded by tax dollars. It also would have blocked hundreds of students in Normandy and Riverview Gardens from transferring because it required any student who sought to move to an accredited district to have attended unaccredited schools for at least one semester, rather than just live in the unaccredited district.

In his written veto message, Nixon cited those parts of the bill, as well as many others, as his reasons for rejecting it. He said the virtual schools amounted to private vouchers that would allow students to attend schools with no public accountability or oversight by elected school boards. He also said the bill “is crammed full of new committees, special task forces, bureaucratic agencies, and idiosyncratic mandates that are unnecessary, unproven and expensive.”

At Ritenour, he added:

"This is not the time for a bunch of more committees, a bunch of more meetings to go to, a bunch of more bureaucracy."

His veto message concluded:

“Rather than solving the problems with Missouri’s current school transfer law, House Bill No. 42 exacerbates them. Consequently, it should not become law.”

He said that the collaboration plan announced earlier in the week was a good first step toward solving problems, but his office will continue to work to find the best solutions possible.

Gov. Jay Nixon at a podium
Credit Wiley Price | St. Louis American
Gov. Nixon speaking at Ritenour High School about why he vetoed the latest school transfer bill. Behind him are State Rep. Tommie Pierson (left) and State Rep. Clem Smith.

"We are not prepared to look in the eyes of those families and say we are putting our hands up and not doing anything," he said.

Reaction to the veto

Backers of the law said Nixon’s veto means yet another year of legislative work to fix the transfer bill has been wasted.

Rep. David Wood, R-Versailles, who sponsored the bill in the General Assembly this year, said he did not expect lawmakers to have much appetite to tackle the issue again next year.

State Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal, D-University City, has been active in trying to craft changes to the transfer law for two years. She blasted Nixon for his failure to be much involved in the process, then rejecting the result.

“He said absolutely nothing between January and May,” she said. “So, we were under the impression that everything was okay….

“He didn’t have a plan in 2013. He didn’t have a plan in 2014. He didn’t have a plan in 2015. There are three branches of government. Two of them have said what they think Normandy needs. Why hasn’t the governor said what he wants?”

Senate Majority Leader Ron Richard, R-Joplin, said he did not want to see the efforts of the past two years be wasted.

"My staff and I will be taking a good look at the governor’s veto message to see what he claims is wrong with the bill," Richard said. "In the coming months, I will be looking for leadership from both parties and leaders in the education field, particularly Sen. Chappelle-Nadal, to craft another plan.

"Our kids are too important to let this legislation go by the wayside. I will also be speaking with the Speaker of the House Todd Richardson about a possible veto override attempt,”

And Kate Casas, state director of the Children's Education Council of Missouri, which has worked to come up with transfer legislation, said:

"HB42 is the result of a collective commitment toward greater public education equality. The disparity that currently exists has been called the final frontier of the Civil Rights Movement, a critical component to finally ensuring equality for all. Recognizing its importance, we are committed to continuing the fight into the future.”

Those who favored a veto of the bill praised Nixon Friday.

At Ritenour High School, state Rep. Clem Smith, D-Velda Village Hills, said the bill was filled with "pet projects and experiments" added by his colleagues who made legislation that started at four pages swell to 91 pages. He said that students in unaccredited districts should not be experimented upon.

"Just because you're an unaccredited school district doesn't mean you don't have a voice in what happens," Smith said.

"Rather than solving the problems with Missouri's current school transfer law, House Bill No. 42 exacerbates them. Consequently, it should not become law." -- Nixon's veto message

“HB42 was a bad bill, Bad for kids and bad for schools,” said Mary J. Armstrong, president of the teachers union in St. Louis."Besides, failing to address school-transfers, it was a Trojan horse for an anti-public school agenda. It promoted untested proposals, and created unaccountable experimental schools.

"Enough with these distractions. With the veto, we can now get back to the real reforms that will help schools and kids succeed.”

“I want to thank Governor Nixon for vetoing HB42 and for recognizing the important role that local control plays in our education system,” said Mike Wood of the Missouri State Teachers Association.  “His decision to reject the one-size-fits-all approach of HB42 and the historic coordination plan with the districts in St. Louis that are impacted by the transfer issue helped produce a solution that will meet local needs without burdening schools across our state. I am hopeful that in the future the legislature will work with us on policies that will help promote local involvement in education.”

Earlier this week, Nixon announced a collaboration by many St. Louis area school districts with Normandy and Riverview Gardens to help deal with the strains of transfers. They included sharing of resources and, in many cases, a voluntary tuition cap of $7,250, which is the same amount that is paid for students in the area’s voluntary school desegregation program.

That plan won praise from Mike Lodewegen of the Missouri Association of School Administrators. 

“The Governor’s effort to rally the St. Louis region around schools in North St. Louis County is even more impactful. This crisis has dominated the debate for several years while important conversations have been put on the back burner. With this crisis behind us, we look forward to working with the legislature, the Governor, and the Department of Education to address these critical issues that are preventing schools and students from realizing their true potential.”

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.
Tim Lloyd was a founding host of We Live Here from 2015 to 2018 and was the Senior Producer of On Demand and Content Partnerships until Spring of 2020.