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As thousands of students transfer, lawmakers search for possible fixes

Update: Late Tuesday evening, Knost, Mehlville’s Superintended, issued a statement that was emailed to parents in the district and posted on Facebook saying the district had received a Declaratory Judgment and Injunctive Relief against them over their admittance of less than half of the transfer applicants from RGSD.

Stay tuned for updates as The Missouri Times follows these developments.

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JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — More than 2,500 students are preparing to leave the Normandy and Riverview Gardens school districts with the beginning of the new school year, and a 20-year-old Missouri state law requires both schools to pay the tuition at whatever school their students choose to transfer to, as well as provide some transportation accommodations.

The law — and the whopping estimated costs to the two districts being roughly $35 million, according to the Cooperating School Districts — is leaving parents, educators and lawmakers divided and uncertain about what to do next.

With school officials from failed districts warning that transfers will likely bankrupt them — lawmakers in Missouri remain divided on what any action should be taken, if any at all.

In Mehlville — a district that is receiving more than 200 students from Riverview Gardens — Republican Rep. Mike Leara said that no legislative fix was prudent or necessary for the transfer situation.

Rep. Mike Leara
Rep. Mike Leara

Leara said he imagined Riverview Gardens and Normandy would likely go bankrupt if the situation continued indefinitely, and Normandy has flat-out suggested as much as the meager $8 million in their reserve funds will not stem any major loss of revenue for long.

Some teachers and administrators, including Mehlville’s own Superintendent, Eric Knost, have raised concerns that the 1993 Outstanding Schools Act — which originally crafted the language upheld by a recent court decision which requires failed districts to pay the cost for students transferring out — is too vague and doesn’t give instructions or guidance to receiving districts.

“What should I do? Narrow the law?” Leara said in response to the idea. “I can do that, but when you open that door, you might not get the result you wanted. We passed Senate Bill 125, which allows DESE to get involved right away, so let them get in there and get to work.”

But Leara’s own colleagues in the Republican Party might not agree. In the Francis Howell where tensions between sending and receiving families and districts is arguably most noticeable, Rep. Kurt Bahr, R-Weldon Spring, confirmed to The Missouri Times that several area lawmakers were looking at “robust” changes to the “failed education establishment” in response to the problems.

One of the many options on the legislative table is blocking the bussing of students.

“Right now myself and [Rep. Mark Parkinson] and some other folks are discussing several routes to take,” Bahr said. “I can’t say for sure what a bill would look like, but I can tell you blocking the bussing of the students is definitely an option someone will propose, and frankly it’s the only one the education establishment will support. The trouble is that won’t really fix the problem.”

Rep. Tommie Pierson
Rep. Tommie Pierson

In Riverview, Rep. Tommie Pierson D-Bellefontaine Neighbors, fears that no action will result in the closure of the entire district.

Pierson, a former school board member in Riverview Gardens who served during the school’s decline, has taken a steadfast approach to re-training or removing administrators who fail to turn failed districts around, a provision stripped from the final version of SB 125.

“If someone in an administrative position isn’t helping teach the kids and make the district better, then they should get some professional development and if they continue to fail, then they need to go,” Pierson said, also indicating it should apply to elected school boards. “People begin to stop voting for the kids, they vote for who gives them the money to win. If I was on the Board right now, I’d say the exact same thing.”

Sen. Gina Walsh, D-North Saint Louis County, has a large portion of RGSD in her district, and said she believes the school board dynamic has been somewhat warped.

“School boards everywhere need to remember that they are the boss,” Walsh said. “The administrators don’t dictate to the school board, the school board dictates to them.”

Walsh supports education reform in response to the transfer issue, calling on lawmakers on the sidelines to learn more about the issue and take a position.

“As lawmakers, we can’t sit around with our hands in our pockets and then say no to someone else’s idea,” Walsh told The Missouri Times. “We have to get involved. I can tell you I’ll be reading every bill dealing with some kind of education reform that gets filed.”

Pierson supports administrative evaluations, an issue which, in his words, “divides the [Democratic] caucus.” He also wants easier avenues for school board members to be removed, and said that the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education needed “teeth” to be able to make real changes in failing districts quickly.

Sarah Potter, a spokesperson for DESE, said the Department would spend much of this school year crafting an intervention plan for Normandy, which just lost accreditation in January. She said SB 125 gave them more flexibility in dealing with failed districts, but that more authority “would help in many cases.”

Final numbers are still being tabulated, but the current estimates say 2,629 students requested to transfer out of both districts combined. The loss represents about a 25 percent reduction to the population of both schools. And because the failed districts must pay the receiving districts tuition rate and not their own, many of the transfers represent a net loss in revenue for the failing district, something one CSD spokesperson called “simply unsustainable.”