Compromise bill on student transfers sparks veto announcement, lawsuits

Though legislation has flaws, Englund believes Nixon should sign it

By Gloria Lloyd

The week after the Missouri Legislature sent a compromise bill on student transfers to Gov. Jay Nixon brought an announcement by Nixon that he would veto the measure, a state decision to dissolve the Normandy School District and lawsuits by Normandy against the state and 20 area districts, including Lindbergh Schools.

After months of wrangling, the Legislature adopted Senate Bill 493 in the last week of its session, a compromise that continues transfers but makes transportation optional and includes provisions for using public money for nonreligious private schools in unaccredited school districts if the local voters agree.

Nixon announced late last week that he will veto the bill for that clause, which he called a “dangerous voucher scheme.” The bill did not pass the House with a veto-proof majority, but Nixon could call legislators back through a special session. He was slated to speak at Lindbergh High School’s graduation ceremony at Chaifetz Arena Tuesday — after the Call went to press.

County Executive Charlie Dooley called on Nixon to veto the bill, saying that it sends money to private schools while ignoring the central issue of how to fix the quality of education in the unaccredited districts themselves.

“Those kids are still in those schools. What are they supposed to do with the kids who don’t get a transfer? How do they get educated? What are we doing to fix that problem?” Dooley told the Call. “That’s the real problem. The transfer problem is the tip of the iceberg. The real problem is educating kids in the St. Louis metropolitan area, and the Normandy and Riverview problem was not addressed in that legislation.”

Instead, Dooley said the governor should call a special session where legislators can work for a better solution.

“They need to address this — don’t put it off until next year. This is about kids’ lives and education. They need to do this now,” he said. “How do we fix this problem? This problem needs to be addressed this year, not next year. Right now is the time to start fixing and get it going in the right direction.”

Rep. Vicki Lorenz Englund, D-Green Park, who also serves on the Lindbergh Board of Education, served on the seven-member Senate and House conference committee that produced the final compromise sent to Nixon.

Although the Legislature’s final product has many flaws, she noted, she wants Nixon to sign it because it addresses some of the key uncertainties and issues around transfers and gives districts a road map to follow for next school year.

“It’s a Band-Aid for the situation, to try and stop some of the bleeding,” she told the Call. “It’s one thing to say, ‘I don’t like the solution that you guys came up with,’ but we need to know what (Nixon is) thinking.”

Nixon has not offered his own solutions, Englund noted. She hopes he calls a special session to unite legislators and give guidance on the problem, as he did with last year’s special session on incentives for Boeing, she added.

The bill allows receiving districts to enforce their class-size policies so that they do not become overcrowded by transfer students, the top goal for the legislative session of Sen. Scott Sifton, D-Affton, who noted at the outset of the session that under current law, if St. Louis Public Schools loses provisional accreditation, its 50,000 school-age children could overwhelm county districts.

However, local officials expecting a solution from Jefferson City said they were instead disappointed.

“It’s a real problem. They need to fix this, and it’s not fixed,” Dooley said. “And that’s their jobs. One of their major jobs in the state is what? Education. They need to address this.”

The original transfer law does not mention student transportation, but the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, or DESE, produced guidelines last year that each unaccredited district should provide transportation to one or more receiving district.

The new legislation states that unaccredited districts “may” provide transportation, which has Mehlville Superintendent Eric Knost concerned that current transfer students would no longer be able to attend their new schools.

It is up in the air whether current transfers could continue if sending districts declined to provide transportation, Englund agreed, but she noted that the bill creates a central education authority which could potentially provide transportation if unaccredited districts refused.

“Mehlville did a great job taking in slightly over 200 kids and educating them, and there’s still some limbo over whether those kids will get to stay,” she said.

Mehlville started the year with 216 transfer students from Riverview Gardens and now has roughly 190 transfer students finishing out the year.

“It’s just problematic all around, lose-lose — and the Legislature sure didn’t help,” Knost said. “They didn’t put anything together that was worth anything … It’s a bill that takes all the transportation away. I can’t imagine that any of our almost 200 (transfer) kids would still come to Mehlville. That choice would be removed.

“And yet, vouchers for nonsectarian private schools?” he added. “There’s zero nonsectarian private schools in Normandy and only one in Riverview. To me that connects the dots and says this is not about a victory for kids and giving them choices as (school choice supporters) claim they wanted, it’s a victory for vouchers — and a victory, potentially, for commercial interests.”

The State Board of Education announced May 20 it would dissolve the Normandy School District July 1. In its place and with the same schools, teachers and footprint, the newly named Normandy Schools Collaborative — still unaccredited — will be run by a state-appointed board rather than its elected school board, DESE Commissioner Chris Nicastro announced.

The next day, Normandy announced that it was suing the state, the state board, DESE and 20 area school districts it is paying to send students to, including Lindbergh. Since Mehlville only has transfer students from Riverview, it is not included in the lawsuit.

The following day, DESE, which assumed control of Normandy’s finances in February, denied the district funds to use for the lawsuit, which was not withdrawn.

“We haven’t officially been served with the lawsuit yet, so our legal counsel has not had time to review it and give their thoughts on it,” Lindbergh spokesman Anthony Dobson told the Call Friday, adding that Lindbergh’s $10,039 tuition is lower than Normandy’s.

Lindbergh began the year with 24 Normandy students and now has 12, along with three from Riverview.

“We don’t need to be having taxpayer dollars spent on lawsuits instead of education — that makes it that much more of an urgent crisis,” Englund said.