Decision of Riverview Gardens board surprises Mehlville officials

Stoner predicting only Riverview Gardens’ most committed students will transfer here

By Gloria Lloyd

Mehlville School District officials were taken by surprise last week when one of the area’s two unaccredited school districts announced it will bus students to Mehlville this fall.

In June, the Missouri Supreme Court upheld a state law that allows students of unaccredited school districts to attend any accredited school district in their county or an adjoining county, with tuition paid by the unaccredited school district.

The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, or DESE, recommends unaccredited districts provide transportation to one district of their choice.

Superintendent Eric Knost discussed the Supreme Court decision with the Mehlville Board of Education at its June meeting, when he said that due to distance, it was unlikely that Mehlville, which has more than 10,500 students, would be chosen by the Riverview Gardens School District in north county, which has about 5,900 students, as its receiving district. The districts are 22 miles apart. However, the three members of the state-appointed board that oversees Riverview Gardens chose to bus to Mehlville at the board’s July 9 meeting.

“I never thought for a minute that Riverview Gardens would select the Mehlville School District,” Knost told the Call. “Not that I didn’t think it was possible. I figured I would get a phone call saying, ‘We’re thinking about Mehlville, what are your class sizes and your capacity? Or tell us about your district in general.’

“We never got any of that.”

The decision also surprised parents in Riverview Gardens who were hoping for transportation to one of the many closer districts, said Sen. Scott Sifton, D-Affton, who called it the biggest issue in his Senate district and said he is working on state legislation to address problems with the “hopelessly vague” transfer law.

“Despite being aware that Mehlville simply doesn’t have the capacity to take terribly many transfer students, the Riverview board decided to provide transportation to a district 22 miles away — I think in an effort to persuade students to stay in Riverview rather than transfer anywhere,” Sifton said. “And I’m not sure that was in the best interests of the students of Riverview Gardens, who deserve a good education wherever they can get it.”

Riverview Gardens Superintendent Scott Spurgeon said in a statement that academics, location, size and cost were factors in the “data-driven” decision. For example, Mehlville’s tuition cost of roughly $9,500 is significantly less than the Clayton School District’s fee of $16,250 for middle and high school. Mehlville’s tuition cost is the second-lowest in the county, only above the much-smaller Bayless School District.

“We’ve always said Mehlville’s a great bang for the buck, and we get a lot done with a little,” Knost said. “And that put us on their radar.”

Two years ago, the Mehlville board updated its tuition rate to a “fully burdened” rate at the suggestion of Mark Stoner, now board president. The new tuition rate includes not just costs of teachers, but adds in the true cost of buildings, supplies and debt service to cover the total cost of a student attending Mehlville.

In the past, the now-defunct Wellston School District failed to pay tuition to receiving school districts, which had difficulty with enforcement in getting the district to pay. As long as Riverview Gardens pays Mehlville’s tuition rate, Mehlville will not experience any additional costs for accepting transfer students, Stoner said.

When Spurgeon called Knost shortly before the July 9 meeting and informed him Mehlville was a finalist, Knost said he told Spurgeon to tell the Riverview Gardens board that Mehlville does not have many open spaces in its classrooms.

“He said, ‘That’s what everybody’s saying,’ and I said it’s true in Mehlville,” Knost said. “Even then I thought they’d probably go for one of the other districts. And then I got the call at 6:30, ‘You’re the one,’ and we really didn’t dialogue much after that because it didn’t seem that they were interested in knowing my concerns.”

Mehlville has class sizes above DESE’s “desirable” class size standards, but below the maximum Missouri standards. The district has always set a goal of getting class sizes down to the desirable standard, Knost said. Even before Riverview’s decision, the Mehlville board planned to establish a class-size policy at its next meeting, on Thursday, July 25. District officials are currently analyzing class sizes to see where space will be available.

Although Knost and Stoner both declined to put a number on how many transfer students Mehlville can take before they receive results of the survey, they agreed there will be no space in kindergarten at all due to the extra classrooms required for the district’s new tuition-free, full-day kindergarten program.

“We will be taking kids (from Riverview Gardens). It’s just not going to be a significant number,” Knost said. “And we will welcome them as our own.”

About 80 Riverview Gardens parents have contacted Mehlville to inquire about sending their children, Knost said. In contrast, districts that are closer to Riverview Gardens, including Clayton, Ferguson-Florissant and Hazelwood, have reported receiving hundreds of requests for information from Riverview Gardens parents, even though parents would have to provide their own transportation.

Parents from Riverview Gardens or the other unaccredited school district in the area, Normandy, who want to send their children to Mehlville or any other district must apply to their districts by Aug. 1. Receiving school districts then must reply whether they have space by Aug. 9.

Riverview Gardens lost its state accreditation in 2007. It has been under the control of a special state-administered board since 2010, but test scores have gotten worse since the state takeover.

With just over a month before the school year begins, the numbers of how many students will stay in Riverview Gardens and Normandy and how many will go to other districts, and which districts, are a total mystery. The way the law is written, Mehlville could receive no transfer students, or it could theoretically receive every student in the Normandy and Riverview Gardens districts, Sifton said.

Stoner predicts that only the most committed students will come to Mehlville.

“I don’t think you’re going to see a mass exodus out of Riverview Gardens,” he said. “That’s an hour and a half in busy traffic, so you’ll have students on the roads for three hours a day.”

If current Mehlville parents or residents worry about how transfers of students from an unaccredited district will affect the quality of education and the time teachers can spend with students, Knost said these fears are unfounded.

Mehlville’s teachers have shown they can educate a diverse student population from all walks of life, including many students who come to the district not knowing English at all, he noted.

Mehlville has one of the highest populations of non-English-speaking student populations in the state, he added, with more than 50 native languages represented among its students.

“We do that all the time, we just don’t have uproars about it,” Knost said.

“It’s not holding us back currently, and it won’t ever hold us back … I’m not worried at all in the sense of our ability to educate the students, and I’m not worried at all about our quality of education,” he said. “Under my watch, that is not going to sink. I will not let it happen.”