(Updated at 4:54 p.m., Tues., May 20)
COLUMBIA, Mo. – The Missouri Board of Education voted unanimously Tuesday to replace the Normandy School District with a new entity with the same boundaries but run by an appointed board, effective July 1.
The accreditation status of the new district was not immediately clear. That means that no one is sure yet whether students in the district would be able to take advantage of the state’s transfer law and enroll in accredited schools in nearby districts. The state board is expected to take up that question and others at its meeting in June.
And the status of Normandy and its students could be further affected by the 135-page transfer bill passed by lawmakers last week that is now sitting on the desk of Gov. Jay Nixon, awaiting his signature or his veto.
Chris Nicastro, commissioner of elementary and secondary education for the state, and Peter Herschend, president of the state board, both made clear that while the vote to create the new Normandy Schools Collaborative is historic, it is hardly the end of the process.
“I have confidence that Normandy can and will improve,” Nicastro said in introducing her recommendation to the board. “But it will take bold innovation and significant change. Business as usual will not be sufficient. The problem is urgent and it is ours, not just theirs. The failure is Missouri’s, not just that of a struggling community.
“Together we can ensure not only that Normandy has schools in their community, but that all of us can be proud of those schools.”
Then, gesturing to signs saying “We are Normandy Strong” carried by some of crowd that came from St. Louis on buses to attend the meeting, Nicastro said:
“I want to carry one of those signs…. Let’s draw the line in the sand, here and now, so we never have to have this conversation again.”
Before the board voted, Herschend said that many unanswered questions remain, and they won’t be solved by approval of a document.
“This is all going to happen through people,” he said. “It’s not going to happen through paper….
“If you allow fractioning to proceed, this will fail. It will absolutely fail. That responsibility lies with the men and women who are in this room.”
“This is going to be tough. Some of you are going to get very upset, and probably some of the board is going to get very upset. That is part of working through a very difficult problem. It doesn’t solve itself. It takes the work of committed men and women working to the objective, which has to be schools of excellence in Normandy for 4,000 kids. If we lose sight of that objective, then this meeting is a waste of time.”
Origins of the plan
Under the plan, which is based largely on the work done by a transition task force appointed by Nicastro, the current Normandy board would be replaced by a Joint Executive Governing Board appointed by the state board. It would “be authorized to retain and exercise all authority granted to the Normandy Board of Education and to take actions necessary for the operation of the Normandy Schools Collaborative subject to the advice and consent of the State Board of Education.”
It is not clear whether any members of the current elected board would be named to the new board or how large it would be.
The plan for the new structure comes at the end of a tumultuous year for Normandy and for Riverview Gardens, which is also unaccredited. After the Missouri Supreme Court unanimously upheld the state’s transfer law last June, about 2,200 students decided to take advantage of the transfer option and enrolled in accredited districts in neighboring areas.
Many returned, but the financial toll on Normandy, which had to pay for tuition and in some cases transportation for the transfer students drained its treasury. It had to get emergency funds from the state to make it to the end of the current school year, and its future was thrown into doubt.
At the same time the state board authorized Nicastro to name the transition task force to study the district’s future, it put control of Normandy’s finances under control of the state.
Action taken by the board would fall under an existing state law giving it additional latitude to deal with poorly performing school districts. Nicastro and Herschend made clear that the board’s action is not dependent on the fate of last week’s school transfer bill.
But the broad reach of that bill, taking in school transfers and other issues, could affect the process if Nixon decides to sign it. The governor has expressed strong reservations about one provision, which would let students transfer to non-sectarian private schools with their tuition paid by tax money.
One part of the bill would bar the state board from lapsing Normandy for financial reasons, but a spokeswoman for DESE said the reason given for the recommendation was academic, not financial.
That history of poor academic achievement was reviewed before the board voted on the recommendation for the new structure. Normandy has not been fully accredited since the state began its Missouri School Improvement Plan, which is now in its fifth version.
Last year, the first year of MSIP5, Normandy achieved just 15.5 points out of possible 140, on a yardstick that includes student test scores and other measures. That translates to a score of 11.1 percent; districts need to achieve 50 percent or more to get even provisional accreditation.
Nicastro reviewed various options open to the board for dealing with Normandy. She said the district would not have enough money to operate after June 30, so allowing the current board to run the district or putting a special administrative board in place, like the ones that run St. Louis Public Schools and Riverview Gardens, were not possible.
Nor, she said, should the board divide up Normandy and attach parts of it to neighboring districts, because those districts, like Jennings and University City, already are in jeopardy of sinking into unaccredited territory.
Though the room was packed with Normandy supporters, they sat silent as the vote proceeded. Herschend had admonished them as the afternoon session began that the format of the board’s meetings does not allow for public comment.
After the meeting, Normandy Superintendent Ty McNichols said he had not been given advance notice of the recommendation to lapse the district, just as he not known in advance when the board decided to take over the district’s finances.
He said that because all district contracts will be void as of the end of June, he wasn’t even sure whether he would be continuing as superintendent, though Nicastro told reporters that she planned to meet with him and his staff next week to discuss the district’s academic future.
Asked whether he thought a change in structure is what Normandy needs to raise its academic standing, McNichols said he hopes that whoever is in charge, a detailed reformation plan that his administration has drawn up will be the blueprint for classroom change.
“I’m a strong believer that the only thing that’s going to impact our student achievement is a difference in how we instruct, how we teach, how we learn,” he said, “and I truly believe that our reformation plan that we developed is the way to make that happen.”
Nicastro said she thinks the reformation plan has good points but it needs to be refined before it can be put into place.
She also told a news conference after the meeting that she hopes students in the district don’t feel diminished by the accreditation status of the district as a whole. It is Normandy that is unaccredited, she said, not them, and she hopes that the action by the board will give students and their families hope for improvement.
“I would hope that the message they got today is A, we are committed to keeping schools in Normandy, and B, we are committed to keeping good schools in Normandy. And that we’re going to do whatever we can do to make that happen.
“I think the first thing we need to offer is hope. And that’s really what I would hope they got from today’s actions, is hope that we are on their side, that we are standing with them, in an effort to try to provide quality school choices in the Normandy school district for families and children.”