JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — The House Budget Committee held a hearing Monday afternoon to ascertain and assess an agreement reached on tuition for transfer students in June of 2015 between St Louis area superintendents.
Gov. Jay Nixon announced the “historic agreement” in June, but the hearing involved quite a bit of wrangling over whether or not the agreement actually existed in writing, an urgent concern for the lawmakers since it involved hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars and the livelihoods of thousands of students.
Under current Missouri law, students attending unaccredited school districts may transfer to better schools nearby at the cost of the failed school. But with wide range of per-student costs between public schools in the St. Louis area, some public schools publicly cried that they were taking a huge financial loss by accepting transfer students at the sending district rate. State lawmakers, who have spent the last two years attempting to forge a bill that will deal with transfer students and survive a gubernatorial veto, have long debated whether some kind of cap should be placed on tuition costs for transfers.
During questioning, the committee grilled Don Senti, the executive director of Education Plus, the first witness to say that an agreement had not actually been officially agreed upon in writing by the superintendents of the school districts involved in the ongoing transfer program due to the lack of accreditation of the Normandy and Riverview Gardens School Districts.
Nixon’s office did not produce anyone at the hearing to discuss or detail the conditions of the agreement, nor was a physical copy even made available to the members of the committee. The lack of information frustrated Committee Chair Tom Flanigan, R-Carthage.
“We heard there was this big agreement between 22 school districts sending and receiving people, I’d like to see it,” Flanigan said. “Nobody has it, nobody can produce it, and then the governor’s office came by our office this morning and said they’re not sending anybody to our hearing today. What do you do with that?”
The agreement discussed ostensibly relates to HB 42, a controversial piece of legislation vetoed by Nixon that would have originally assisted Normandy and Riverview Gardens with budgetary concerns over the cost of transfer student tuition payments to fellow school districts. In the Senate, the bill expanded transfer options to include charter schools in specific counties and private online courses, something Nixon opposes, and the core of why he vetoed the legislation.
Nixon’s championship of the agreement, which allegedly provided $500,000 in “state funds” each to Riverview Gardens and Normandy for reading programs, would attempt to help the districts on their way back to accreditation, but the details of the proposal, including where precisely Nixon planned on getting the money, were not presented before the committee, a move that left lawmakers scratching their heads, given Nixon’s own meeting with the involved schools last week.
Flanigan says the lack of transparency hinders the committee’s ability to get things done, especially as the body moves into September’s veto session. The representative says he does not know if HB 42 will make it to the floor during debate, but that more information would go a long way to helping those voting on the bill.
“Part of [this hearing] is a review of the whole situation as we move towards the veto session,” Flanigan said. “Summertime happens, a lot of other things got vetoed, there’s a lot of other things coming up. This is our opportunity to say, ‘What’s going on, can you please help us out?’”
But the news coming out of the Normandy and Riverview Gardens districts was largely positive during the hearing. Representatives of both districts reported that in terms of academic success, they were on their way to provisional accreditation within the next two years. Both cited stronger, more consistent and stable leadership as big reasons they saw improvement in their numbers.
“If Riverview Gardens and Normandy are improving, I think that validates what we’re trying to do to make that process better,” Flanigan said.
Still the two districts had shortcomings as well. Riverview Gardens is currently projected to be financially insolvent by the end of the 2017-2018 school year because of the amount of money they pay in transfer tuition and transport. On Normandy’s end, the selling of land and a building gave them a surplus that gave the district enough money to get through the 2017-2018
Normandy superintendent Dr. Charles Pearson believes the key to solvency lies in regaining accreditation, something with which the Riverview Gardens representative, Anna Munson, agreed.
“If we make progress and become provisionally accredited, that will bring a halt to the transfers,” Pearson said.
Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that HB 42 was expanded in the Senate to include the option to transfer to private schools, instead of charter schools in specific counties and private online courses.