Even as officials worked to determine where to send hundreds of students newly able to take advantage of a state law to transfer out of two unaccredited St. Louis County districts, Missouri’s top education official said Friday that the loss was expected to bankrupt one of the districts.
Missouri Education Commissioner Chris Nicastro told reporters during a teleconference that the state would ask the Legislature for help for the Normandy district, which is expected to run out of money this school year. She spoke as staff members at a coalition called the Cooperating School Districts of Greater St. Louis worked to place students in the districts of their choice.
Normandy and Riverview Gardens are unaccredited, and a recent Missouri Supreme Court ruling allows students to transfer to accredited districts. The Kansas City school district also is unaccredited, but a pending court case will prevent transfers there – for now.
Estimates show the transfers could cost the Normandy and Riverview Gardens districts as much as $30 million. A combined 2,589 students from the two districts applied to transfer by Thursday’s application deadline. About 1,000 of the students wishing to transfer from the two districts will be placed in their first choice, said Sherrie Wehner, marketing director for Cooperating School Districts, which is coordinating the transfer process. It wasn’t clear how many would get their second choice, third choice, or beyond, or how many listed just one choice and will return to their original districts.
State data shows Normandy had $8.6 million in reserve and Riverview Gardens $28.6 million at the end of the 2011-12 school year, the most recent year information is available.
Asked when Normandy would become insolvent, Nicastro said the state was attempting to project that ahead of time and then would “work for legislation to ensure the necessary funding to cover their tuition costs, their transportation costs and the cost of providing their current programs for their remaining students through the balance of this school year.”
“I think the key here is that we want to make sure that the receiving districts are compensated for their children they are accepting in good faith and that the staff and the teachers and the children in Normandy are able to have the resources necessary to complete the school year,” Nicastro said.
Phone and email messages that The Associated Press left for the Normandy district weren’t immediately returned.
Nicastro said state officials believe that Riverview Gardens would have sufficient funds to make it through the year. But she added: “This could be an urgent issue before them for next year.”
State Budget Director Linda Luebbering said that the Legislature reconvenes in January, providing the first opportunity to consider a request for a supplemental appropriation. She said such requests must come from the governor and generally aren’t approved until April.
“It wouldn’t get much money to anybody much faster than just waiting for the next fiscal year,” Luebbering said. Scott Holste, a spokesman for Gov. Jay Nixon, said the governor’s office wouldn’t comment.
Students from Normandy and Riverview Gardens have applied to transfer to 25 districts in the same or adjoining counties. But if they want free busing on top of free tuition, their choices are more limited. Normandy will pay to bus 453 students to the Francis Howell School District in neighboring St. Charles County. Riverview Gardens is busing a combined 393 students to the Kirkwood and Mehlville districts.
The transfer program has stirred concerns that some say are racially tinged. Both unaccredited districts are largely made up of black students, and there has been some opposition from parents in mostly white receiving districts that the transfer students will create overcrowding and add to disciplinary problems.
Officials in the financially struggling Normandy and Riverview Gardens districts also worry the program will bankrupt them and create a vicious cycle that will keep them from improving. Mehlville Superintendent Eric Knost noted that most students will remain in the unaccredited districts and asked what the transfers would mean for them.
“We have depleted a lot of their resources by doing this, so from that perspective, What are we doing to fix the underlying problem that got us here in the first place?” he asked.
At court hearings last year, attorneys representing Clayton and St. Louis schools argued that it would be impossible to comply with the transfer program. St. Louis County Circuit Court Judge David Lee Vincent III agreed, but the state’s high court reversed Vincent’s decision in June.
St. Louis city schools are not part of the transfer program because the district became provisionally accredited last fall after years of being unaccredited.