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State school board members hope to find more money for Normandy, Riverview

Riverview Gardens Superintendent Scott Spurgeon (center) talks with state board member John Martin (left) and deputy education commissioner Ron Lankford at the state school board meeting in October 2015.
File photo |Dale Singer | St. Louis Public Radio

JEFFERSON CITY — The superintendents of schools in Riverview Gardens and Normandy earned praise Tuesday from members of the state board of education for their solid progress on the latest Missouri school report cards 

Now, board members say, the districts need to get more money to help the momentum continue.

This is the third year that both districts have seen students take advantage of a law that allows them to attend class in a nearby, accredited districts, with their home district paying tuition and, in some cases, transportation as well. The transfers have cost Normandy and Riverview Gardens millions of dollars — a financial drain they say has hurt the students who remain and has cast a shadow over their future survival.

Districts that get less than 50 percent of the 140 points available on the annual performance report are classified as unaccredited. This year, Normandy is the only district in Missouri that is in that unaccredited range, but its score rose to 30.4 percent from just 7.1 percent last year.

In Riverview Gardens, the rise is also sharp. It earned 79.3 percent of the possible points, up from 45.4 percent last year. It has asked the state board to upgrade its accreditation status, an issue the board is expected to consider in December.

Normandy Superintendent Charles Pearson said this year's school year has started well. He noted that changes in the district’s culture have led to a belief that success is possible. But, he added, “we know we have a lot of work left. We’re not sugar-coating that at all. Consistency from  classroom to classroom is even more important than from school to school. So we know what we have to do.”

In his presentation, Riverview Gardens Superintendent Scott Spurgeon emphasized how administrators in Riverview Gardens spend a lot of time in the district buildings, making sure things are going as they should. He said typically, districts try to change culture first, then improve performance. “We have to do it both at the same time,” he said. “I can’t tell you how complicated that is. But we’ve done that.”

One indicator of the district’s commitment and progress, Spurgeon said, is how many items circulate from school libraries. From 87,000 in the 2012-13 school year, the number has risen steadily, moving toward a goal of 200,000 this year, he said.

Spurgeon said student confidence has grown steadily, and the district’s success should also attract the support of more community partners.

The superintendents of both districts won praise from the board Tuesday.

“For the first time in recent years, the arrow is pointing up," board member Peter Herschend of Branson told Pearson. "It’s green and moving up, as opposed to wandering around the sub-basement. That does not happen by accident. Your greatest challenge is to do that same thing again.”

Board member Mike Jones of St. Louis added that Riverview Gardens’ improvement can be attributed to keeping its focus.

“I compliment you on your intentionality,” he said. “I’ve got this belief that nobody ever wins a championship by accident.”

Vice President Victor Lenz of south St. Louis County praised the work of both men, saying:

“The leaders — the superintendents in this case — have taken the bull by the horns and have shown others, this is how you do it. It’s an attitude. We’re going to do this together. They’ve changed the culture. They’re beginning to change the culture in those districts. And it makes a huge difference.”

But board members agreed that maintaining the progress will be difficult without more money.  Lenz said the state board has no extra funds to give the two districts, but it should work to see what changes could be made to improve their financial footing.

“If you ask me as an educator to fix something,” Lenz said, “the first thing I’m going to do is say where’s my budget, how am I going to make this happen? In the case of these districts, what’s happened is we’ve asked them to fix it, but we’ve turned around and taken some of their funds away and asked them to do it with less. We’ve got to fix that part.

“We’ve got to give them the resources they need to make things better. They’re not going to waste. It’s obvious they’re not wasting now. They’re making things happen with what they have. Let’s give the resources they need to make it happen.”

We've asked them to fix it, but we've turned around and taken some of their funds away and asked them to do it with less. We've got to fix that part. -- State board Vice President Victor Lenz

Jones compared the work in the two unaccredited districts to that in other schools that are better off financially.

“People who are rich and well off, you never hear them say if we had less resources, we’d be more efficient," he said.

“We spend a lot of time talking about leadership, and we always tell people who serve low income communities, poor communities, that it’s all about leadership and culture," Jones said. "While we should commend your extraordinary effort, we need to be advocates for your getting more oxygen to keep the fire going.”

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.