Nixon vetoes transfer measure; no plans to call special session

Governor slams Francis Howell on transfer student decision

By Gloria Lloyd

Gov. Jay Nixon officially vetoed the Missouri Legislature’s bill on school transfers last week, saying that although the transfer situation is flawed, the bill would make things worse by violating some of the most sacred aspects of public education.

At a June 24 press conference where Nixon outlined his objections at Education Plus, formerly known as Cooperating School Districts, he noted that everyone in Missouri shares responsibility for public education.

“From Oakville to O’Fallon, St. Louis City to St. Peters — every community in this region has been affected by the challenges of struggling school districts, and every community has a stake in their success,” he said.

Days earlier, the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, or DESE, advised districts to accept a lower tuition rate of $7,236 for transfer students. Some districts have been charging unaccredited districts up to $20,000 per transfer student, which has pushed unaccredited districts toward bankruptcy.

The governor endorsed the guidelines and decisions issued by DESE and the State Board of Education to lower tuition and dissolve the unaccredited Normandy School District and re-open it as the Normandy Schools Collaborative as of July 1, with no accreditation status — a decision that allowed some area school districts receiving Normandy students, including Francis Howell and University City, to vote not to invite them back.

Because he believes the path outlined by DESE and the state board is a “better path forward” for Normandy and Riverview Gardens, Nixon said he does not plan to recall legislators for a special session to come up with another solution.

Lindbergh Schools ended the year with a dozen transfer students from Normandy and three from Riverview. Its tuition is $10,039, but at the time the Call went to press, no decisions had been made about whether to invite Normandy students back again or lower their tuition rate, district spokesman Anthony Dobson told the Call.

Since Normandy dropped a lawsuit it filed against 20 area school districts, including Lindbergh, the district had no legal fees associated with that lawsuit, Dobson added.

The Mehlville School District has roughly 200 students from Riverview Gardens, and Board of Education President Ron Fedorchak announced he opted on his own to keep the issue of lower transfer tuition off the agenda of the district’s June 26 board meeting because of the “late nature and potential impact on our budget,” despite a June 30 deadline imposed by DESE.

“Cutting the tuition would simply shift these costs to our taxpayers, and I will not support that,” he said, noting that the $7,927 rate Mehlville has charged Riverview Gardens is lower than the district’s cost to educate a student.

Mehlville already has the lowest tuition rate of any district in the St. Louis area.

Accepting an even lower tuition rate would cut $112,000 from Mehlville’s budget next year, when Mehlville is already running a projected $5 million deficit, Chief Financial Officer Marshall Crutcher said.

Although Mehlville has not hired extra teachers, current teachers and administrators have taken on extra work due to the transfers, which was reflected in the salary increases the board gave existing employees a few weeks ago, Fedorchak said.

Board member Kathleen Eardley asked that the tuition issue be on the agenda of the next board meeting July 24.

Rep. Tommie Pierson, D-Bellefontaine Neighbors, who represents Riverview Gardens in the Legislature, appeared alongside the governor last week to denounce districts that declined to invite back transfer students from Normandy.

“Transferring students out turned into a money grab, and as soon as you talk about reducing the money, then the districts don’t want the students,” Pierson said. “It ought to be about educating students all over this state. Everybody loses when we have a district or a group of students in the state who are not learning.”

Nixon also condemned Francis Howell, Normandy’s transportation district, for declining to accept the students again and requested that other districts take the lower tuition rate.

Although legislators have criticized the governor for not offering his own solutions to transfers, Nixon said he warned legislators he would veto any bill that included vouchers. By including vouchers, the Legislature’s compromise bill violates the Missouri Constitution and goes against some of the most basic foundations and “common-sense values” of public education in the state, Nixon said.

“Not only does Senate Bill 493 fail to solve the school transfer problems it was intended to address, it would create new problems and exacerbate the hardships faced by children who attend unaccredited schools,” Nixon said.

In his veto message, Nixon outlined three objections to the bill: Residents of unaccredited districts could vote to spend public money on private school vouchers, payments for transportation to get students to their new schools would be optional and receiving districts could take a lower tuition in exchange for not counting the test scores of transfer students in the district’s overall scores.

“They had five months, and this thing got hijacked off into an ideological voucher bill, and then a ‘Don’t give reimbursement for transportation,’ and ‘Let’s count some students and not others,'” Nixon said.