Updated at 9:24 a.m. Monday with more district decisions about Normandy transfers.
As the Normandy school district is about to give way to the Normandy Schools Collaborative, Missouri’s education commissioner is addressing criticism about how the transition has been handled.
Chris Nicastro’s response: The decisions that have been made represent the best available from a list of bad options.
Critics have raised several questions since the state board of education accepted recommendations from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education on how the new Normandy should be structured and how the transfer of students who live there should be allowed. Among them:
-- If DESE’s stated goal is to make available a good education to every child, why place such strict limits on who can transfer out of Normandy?
-- If the new district has no accreditation status at all, is that the same as not having an accredited school? So shouldn't all students living there be allowed to transfer?
-- Did the state board’s actions, which were designed to preserve schools in Normandy, favor saving the district over teaching the children?
-- Was Normandy doomed when it absorbed Wellston four years ago?
In an interview, Nicastro said she understands the concerns of those who have criticized the transition, particularly in light of the decision first by Francis Howell, then by University City to refuse to accept any transfers from Normandy in the coming school year.
Since the interview, more districts have revealed their plans for Normandy transfers. Ferguson-Florissant said Monday that it would no longer accept transfers from the district because of its no-accreditation status. The district said it received 105 Normandy students during the past school year.
In a statement, board president Robert Chabot said:
"The Board believes in the value of strong community schools, and we want to see all school districts succeed. We are encouraged by the plans for the Normandy School Collaborative to improve outcomes for Normandy students, and we are dedicated to maintaining the strength and stability of Ferguson-Florissant to benefit the region as a whole."
Ferguson-Florissant also will not accept the lower tuition rate for transfer student from Riverview Gardens but will continue to charge its rate of about $10,700.
The Maplewood-Richmond Heights, Ladue, Parkway and Brentwood school districts have said they would accept Normandy students who are eligible to transfer. Other districts are expected to reveal their plans by today's deadline set by DESE, though not all of them.
Nicastro said as far as limiting transfers and putting a cap on tuition, the financial realities in Normandy had to be addressed. Given the drain on the district’s budget from the 1,000 students who chose to transfer elsewhere in the past school year, transfers had to be limited for the new collaborative to be able to succeed. That was the case, even with a lower tuition amount of about $7,200, she said.
In the end, she added, DESE and the state board had to make what she described as the best of a series of unpalatable choices.
“If we allowed things to go forth as they are,” Nicastro said, “then it was very clear that the district would not have sufficient revenue to offset the expenditures to get through another year…. If we allow the district to go bankrupt, at that time then all of the children conceivably would have to come back from the receiving districts, because there would be not only a reduced tuition amount, there would be no tuition.
“In that event, then the state board of education would be faced with the challenge of finding some 4,000 children, in the middle of the school year, somewhere else to go.”
The issue, she added, became one of determining the best route to help the most students.
“If you look at the number of kids who would be adversely affected,” Nicastro said, “doing nothing and allowing the district to move forward under existing circumstances really created a hardship for more children than the course of action we chose is going to take.
“We’re disappointed that Francis Howell chose not to take a lower tuition. We’re still optimistic that the remaining districts will take the lower tuition, but even if they don’t, we still will have more children who have been able to make what for them has been a choice and still maintain schools in the Normandy community.”
The state board of education has called a meeting via conference call for 4 p.m. Monday where it will approve more members of the new Normandy governing board and appoint a chairperson as well as discuss other aspects of the new operation, including transfer students and receiving districts and the hiring of new staff.
At 1 p.m., Tuesday, the new Joint Executive Governing Board will meet in the Normandy Board room at the central office at 3855 Lucas & Hunt Road.
One key promise the state is making with these changes is to make the schools in Normandy better. The district has not had full accreditation for many years. Its unaccreditation last year was the move that led to the transfers and the establishment of the collaborative.
A big part of the work done by Superintendent Ty McNichols and his staff, after he took office last July 1, was to put together a detailed reformation plan that maps out how academic achievement in the district can rise.
With all contracts for teachers and others lapsing as of today – McNichols and other administrators will be working on an at-will basis, with no contract at all – the new Normandy has been re-hiring some teachers who fit into its new plans and hiring others from elsewhere. Firm hiring numbers are not yet available.
With the district’s chronically low test scores, DESE has characterized the coming school year as one of transition. Still, Nicastro said she is confident that the new outlook and new learning techniques will pay dividends shortly.
“Our intention is to make improvements as quickly as possible,” she said. “I believe we will have some significant changes in place, if not by the very start of the school year, certainly very early in the school year. We’re going through a pretty extensive selection process to ensure that the quality of teaching and leadership in the district is superior to that we’ve had previously.
“We’ve also extended learning time, which we believe is going to be the key to helping the kids achieve at higher levels.”
How Will Kids' Learning Be Affected?
What effect will the movement have on kids’ learning if they were in Normandy one year, Francis Howell the next, and now have to return to Normandy, because the new rules say they can’t transfer anywhere else?
“No one likes transition,” Nicastro said, “and I think we certainly preferred not to have taken some of the steps we did. But again, we were faced with picking the best of what was really nothing more than a series of bad choices. Our intention was to choose a path that disrupted the fewest number of students possible. And that’s exactly what we’ve done.”
She also noted that serious disruptions also would have occurred under the transfer bill vetoed by Gov. Jay Nixon last week. The lower tuition rates it allowed would not have been enough to help Normandy survive financially, Nicastro said.
“Beyond that,” she added, “there was no transportation provided, so the reality is for many of the kids and in fact probably all of the kids who were going to Francis Howell, it would have been very difficult if not impossible for them to get there.”
Should Transfers Be Restricted?
Should there be any restrictions at all on the ability of Normandy resident students to transfer? The relevant state law says transfers are allowed from a district “that does not maintain an accredited school.” With no accreditation status at all, is the new Normandy maintaining accredited schools?
Nicastro replied this way:
“We certainly reviewed existing law and had pretty extensive consultation with the attorney general’s office prior to making our final recommendation to the state board. It’s very possible that this could be challenged legally, and if it is, we’re prepared to defend the decision that we’ve made.”
And what does she think of Nixon’s comments last week when he was asked to evaluate her performance? He called Nicastro an “active and able participant in very challenging issues, and I appreciate her energy and commitment.”
Nicastro said when she heard that, “I was very pleased. I appreciate very much the governor’s support. He and his office have been very supportive partners through this entire enterprise, and we’ll continue to work closely with them and others as we go forward.”
Echoes of Wellston
One persistent question that has come up since Nicastro and the state board dissolved the Wellston school district in 2010 and folded it into Normandy is whether that move doomed Normandy to fail. The issue was raised again in a recent online post by Stanton Lawrence, who was superintendent in Normandy when the merger took place.
He notes that at the time, Wellston was the only school district in Missouri whose student body was 100 percent African American; Normandy was 98 percent black.
“In essence,” Lawrence writes, “both communities were experiencing concentrated poverty and racial segregation. Was this decision made to effectively segregate the students in both school districts?”
Plus, he adds, “no state board of education in any state has ever made a decision to attach two failing school districts (both characterized by concentrated poverty) as a remedy for poor performance. Routinely, such a decision would involve merging the failed school district with one that is performing quite well academically, and at the same time, a school district that is fiscally viable.”
Nicastro rejects Lawrence’s contention that the Normandy-Wellston merger amounted to “punitive disparity.” At the time, she notes, the state board had only two options for Wellston: 1) a special administrative board or 2) ending the district and either attaching it whole to another one or splitting it up.
The SAB in Wellston had not done the job of turning the district around academically, she said, so the second option was all that was left, and given its size – 400 children, about 8 percent of the Normandy population – Normandy was the right choice.
She said that the merger “was something we discussed at length with the Normandy board of education and they were more than amenable to taking the children.”
As far as whether adding Wellston students led to lower achievement levels in Normandy, Nicastro said:
“To say that assuming responsibility for those 400-some children was the death of the Normandy school district is at best a reach. The fact is that when the district was ultimately unaccredited, we ran the data both with the previous Wellston children in the results and with the Wellston students not in the results, and it made absolutely no difference one way or another.
“So the district clearly was struggling at the time that we attached them, but the same thing could be true for any of the surrounding districts at that time. Just the sheer geography and the proximity of the communities, one to the other, made a lot of sense for them to go to Normandy.”