Mehlville declines DESE advice, won’t accept lower tuition for transfer students

By Gloria Lloyd

For now, the Mehlville School District will not follow guidance from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, or DESE, to lower its tuition rate for transfer students from Riverview Gardens, Board of Education President Ron Fedorchak announced last night.

Fedorchak opted on his own to keep the transfer tuition issue off the agenda of last night’s meeting because of the “late nature and potential impact on our budget,” he told the rest of the board at the end of the night.

“Cutting the tuition would simply shift these costs to our taxpayers, and I will not support that,” he said.

Earlier in the night, the board approved a $110 million budget, with a $5 million deficit, for next year 6-1, with Secretary Lori Trakas dissenting. The budget builds in a year of tuition from Riverview for 200 students at the current rate of $7,927, and the difference would add up to $110,000 over all of next year, Chief Financial Officer Marshall Crutcher said.

Board member Kathleen Eardley asked for the board to revisit the tuition issue at its next meeting July 24, although board member Larry Felton said it would not matter, noting, “It’s a moot point – the point of concern was that it was (a deadline of) July 30.

DESE issued updated transfer guidance June 19 that recommends receiving school districts charge a flat rate of $7,236 for tuition for transfer students, and the state education agency asked districts to decide if they would follow the new rules by June 30 – an arbitrary deadline that had “no justification,” Fedorchak added.

Although to date Mehlville has followed DESE’s guidelines on transfers, the guidelines are not law. It is under the same guidelines that sending districts have paid for buses to send students to receiving districts.

In his last meeting as superintendent of Mehlville before leaving for Rockwood next Tuesday, Superintendent Eric Knost recommended the board accept the lower tuition.

“As I’m going out the door, my recommendation would be that we continue to follow state guidelines as we have in the past,” he said.

Springfield Public Schools Superintendent Norm Ridder takes over as interim superintendent July 1.

The lower $7,236 tuition is the same as the rate Mehlville and other districts agree to accept for voluntary transfer students through the Voluntary Interdistrict Choice Corp., or VICC, desegregation program from St. Louis Public Schools.

Although some of the other school districts in the area heavily impacted by transfers, including Francis Howell, have chosen to reject current transfer students from the Normandy School District for next year – which they can now legally do since the district will now have no accreditation status when it dissolves and reforms as the state-run Normandy Schools Collaborative July 1 – that aspect of the transfer law does not apply to Mehlville and Riverview Gardens, since Riverview is still unaccredited and has not been taken over by the state.

“There’s a lot of questions that come our way about what are the implications for Mehlville,” Knost said. “(Riverview’s) situation is quite different from Normandy’s at this point in time – they are still a solid school district and still being able to operate, although we know that that’s kind of on a crash course to bankruptcy as well. So we’ve got a little bit of a preview about how the state would potentially handle Riverview Gardens if they do go bankrupt.”

At its current rate of spending, Riverview Gardens is scheduled to go bankrupt at the end of the next school year. Unlike Normandy, Riverview has not cut its teachers or closed any schools over the past year to stem its spending.

Mehlville has the lowest tuition of any district in the St. Louis area, which is one of the reasons that the Riverview board unexpectedly selected Mehlville as its transportation district last summer. Mehlville’s cost per student is $10,283, which DESE used to calculate a 2013-2014 tuition rate based on attendance that amounted to $7,927 for each of the roughly 200 students that Riverview sent to Mehlville – a total of $1.25 million over the course of the school year, money that helped Mehlville overcome lower-than-expected real-estate assessments.

On the advice of the district’s attorneys, Fedorchak said Mehlville retains the right to continue accepting its current rate of tuition or lower it in the future to the DESE recommendation.

“I normally encourage discussion of major issues here before the board, but action is not required of us at this time. We have a full plate and we had several budget issues to deal with tonight,” Fedorchak noted. “Many critics will cite the fact that we didn’t hire additional staff or utilize the tuition, but I would disagree. We acknowledged the fact that our teachers picked up the slack, as did our administrators, by rewarding them with a portion of this money two weeks ago. We also have resources being used that would not have been needed. Cutting the tuition would simply shift these costs to our taxpayers, and I will not support that.”

Fedorchak also questioned whether the Riverview Gardens School District should continue to exist, or whether it should also become a new entity like the new state-run Normandy Schools Collaborative.

“We promised our students and families that there would be no drop in service. There has not been any drop. We were also told that the Riverview Gardens School District would obey the law and pay promptly. They have,” Fedorchak said. “Now DESE is proposing that the Mehlville taxpayers should start footing the bill. This is not our responsibility. Our responsibility is to pick up the pieces and educate the children they failed. In my opinion, this move is about sustaining the educational bureaucracy. Keeping Riverview Gardens does no one any good but the administrators and the state-appointed board.”