JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — After a Missouri Supreme Court decision upheld an earlier law allowing children in unaccredited public schools to transfer to accredited schools at the cost of the failed district, more than 1,600 students sought to do just that. But whether other districts can handle the capacity, and how the loss in funds might slow the recovery of failed districts, is still uncertain.
As of July 24, nearly 1,700 students at either Riverview Gardens or Normandy school districts — both of which have lost accreditation through the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education — applied to transfer out. Normandy designated Francis Howell School District for its students and Riverview Gardens selected the Mehlville and Kirkwood districts. The announcement for Kirkwood, Riverview’s second school, came Tuesday evening.
At Riverview Gardens, more than 500 students have applied to transfer to Mehlville alone, but Mehlville Superintendent Eric Knost said his district cannot accommodate the full amount, an assertion some have challenged based on Mehlville’s own shrinking enrollment. The district has lost more than 1,000 students since 2004 according to enrollment data provided by the state.
Knost and the district designated target class sizes only recently. Because state law does not specify whether schools are required to receive every eligible student, or by what standard they can begin to turn them away, DESE recommended that receiving districts draw up class-size policies. Once those targeted sizes are reached, DESE recommends schools then begin to turn students away. Mehlville targets are significantly less than the DESE-approved maximum permissible students per class.
Knost said that his district knows they won’t meet the targets in many cases, particularly because of new students, but that the assertion that Mehlville has room for hundreds of new kids isn’t correct.
“First of all, we forget that we are talking about families,” Knost told The Missouri Times. “You might have four kids in different grades Maybe we have plenty of room in high school, but in the fourth and fifth grade, you don’t have the space. Or maybe we have room for all four, but at different schools. We don’t want to break up families, particularly not when they are trying to get their kids into a school under these circumstances.”
Mehlville’s “ideal” class sizes, as determined by the targets, significantly reduce the number of children they are willing to accept as transfers. Knost pointed out that state law is “extremely vague” on how many students a receiving district can accept.
“The law has really failed us here,” Knost said. “And when the law and the courts don’t give you specific parameters, you’re forced to make up your own manual moving forward. Right now, we’re considering what is reasonable. We don’t think it’s reasonable to ask our district to undo all the steps it’s taken in the past years to reduce class sizes and improve educational quality. What good are we as a district accepting kids from a failing school if we begin to fail ourselves? What about local control, and our right to determine the best thing for students?”
Knost was repeatedly quoted by various news outlets saying Mehlville will only accept 150 transfer students, which he says is not correct.
“I was pressed and pressed for a number, despite transfer requests and enrollments not being final until August,” Knost said. “I gave that number as a starting point based partly on our class target sizes. But it’s not inflexible. It’s certainly not set in stone and there is potential for us to go above that. But we also have enrollment from within our district boarders to consider and those numbers are just now being finalized.”
The Cost of Transfers
With approximately 16 percent of the student population of the two schools looking to transfer out and the law requiring failed districts to foot the bill, the total impact on the two school’s budgets could reach up to $26 million, according to numbers provided by the Cooperating School Districts, an organization monitoring and coordinating the entire transfer process.
Both Normandy and Riverview Gardens districts have had their budgets cut in recent years as a result of a shrinking population and increasingly worrisome performances. This process, some say, could create an even more massive budget impact.
In Riverview Gardens, the impact will be roughly $13 million according to the CSD. According to district budget information, this is roughly the operating cost of Riverview Gardens High School as well as the district’s only two middle schools, Westview and Central.
Normandy’s reserve fund is about $8 million — a meager amount compared to Riverview Garden’s more than $30 million — and last week, officials announced that the transfer cost could bankrupt the school before the end of the year.
With the school year only a few short weeks away and the deadline looming for transfer requests to be filed on August 1, hundreds of students from both schools currently do not know where they will be attending class. Meanwhile, both failing districts are scrambling to retain students to ease the financial blow to their budgets.
“We feel that there is a new energy in our district,” Melanie Powell-Robinson, Riverview Gardens Communications Director, told The Missouri Times. “We’re not discouraging anyone from exercising their legal rights [to transfer] but we do believe we can provide for those children that do choose to stay, and financial considerations are obviously always on the forefront when we talk about providing our community with quality education.”
Powell-Robinson said she hopes that some families will make the choice to stay, both because of the financial stability of the district and because the district’s new superintendent, Scott Spuergeon, Ed. D., is making “big changes” to meet the needs of the local community.
Spurgeon said that the costs associated with transferring students were unsustainable.
“Projections, depending on the number of students who transfer to another district, show the Riverview Gardens School District financially stressed or completely broke within two years,” Spurgeon said.
While parents and observers have called on Mehlville to use the tuition money it will gain from Riverview to hire more staff to accommodate the increase in students, the district is contending that there simply isn’t the classroom space. A spokesperson for the district that many art classrooms had been nixed throughout the districts and art teachers now operated from mobile carts, visiting students in class rather than having students come to them for space purposes.
Knost stressed that “cramming a school full of kids” wasn’t necessarily the best way to give Riverview Gardens students the best education alternative.
At a special board meeting Tuesday night, Riverview selected the Kirkwood School District as their other alternative for transfer students. Students transferring to either Mehlville or Kirkwood will be transported on Riverview’s dime.
The Parent Perspective
The uncertainty about the relationship between failed and reviving districts and the tone of some of the pubic meetings, which have been contentious, are pushing some parents to shoulder the transportation responsibilities themselves and seek out other schools for transfer.
Diona Coates, 33, is a mother in the Riverview Garden School District. Last year her three daughters attended school in the Normandy District. While they reside in Riverview, Coates said she deliberately avoided Francis Howell and Mehlville. Her children will be attending McCluer junior high and high school in the Ferguson-Florissant District during the coming school year.
“I really didn’t like the feedback in reference to our children attending [other] schools,” Coates said. “For one thing I think it’s a fear of the unknown. People asked right off the bat if the schools would need metal detectors because of our kids. Our kids are not criminals. They aren’t dangerous and I just really didn’t appreciate the way some parents and folks made me feel about sending my kids there. Personally, I feel that some of it was definitely racial.”
Because they are not attending Mehlville, Coates will have to transport her children on her own, rather than use the school-sponsored bus service. Coates said Mehlville was simply too far away for her to even consider it, unlike McCluer, which also is in North County.
However, Coates said plenty of parents aren’t as lucky as she is. Coates has made arrangements for various family members to help transport her children — who are in second, fifth and ninth grades, to their respective schools.
“Plenty of parents don’t have that choice,” Coates said. “I know a lot of folks who don’t want their kids going to Francis Howell or Mehlville, but they have to because they just don’t have another way of getting them somewhere else.”
Coates said that the only thing that could make the process easier at this point would be for failing schools to shoulder the cost of transportation for all students regardless of the school, and that designating a single district “backs parents into a corner” and ultimately makes the choice for them.
Coates called on Missouri lawmakers, echoing statements from both Powell-Robinson and Knost that the guidelines for transferring students were too vague, and ultimately left schools to invent new policies and procedures as they went along, far from an efficient system.
“We need the lawmakers to come in, handle transfers in isolation without anything else attached to it, and we need them to do it sooner rather than later,” Knost, Mehlville’s Superintendent, said. “We don’t have any manual on how to do this, we don’t have any instruction. So we’re trying out best to make sure our students and Riverview students can benefit as much as possible from our educators without reducing our ability to teach them. We need their guidance on this.”