JEFFERSON CITY — A decision by Missouri education officials to intervene in a struggling St. Louis-area school district is raising new questions about whether the school can still get the state money intended to help it.
The Normandy School District currently is unaccredited, meaning students have the right to transfer to other nearby schools at Normandy's expense under the terms of a 1993 state law.
But that is about to change.
The State Board of Education recently decided to disband the district and create a new entity that, as of this coming Tuesday, will be run by a special state oversight board. The new Normandy district will be classified neither as accredited nor unaccredited, and students who had not previously transferred will not be allowed to do so during the upcoming school year.
The decision to remove the "unaccredited" label from Normandy already is having ripple effects.
Citing Normandy's new unclassified status, the Francis Howell School District has decided that it is no longer legally required to accept the Normandy transfer students. More than 400 Normandy students had attended Francis Howell this past school year. About 350 had been expected to return for the 2014-2015 school year. But that now won't be allowed.
The University City School District also decided this past week to stop accepting the Normandy transfer students.
Democratic state Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal, who also is a member of the University City School Board, said Normandy's new unclassified status is one of the reasons she voted to turn away the roughly 80 Normandy transfer students.
"Because it's not an unaccredited district anymore, we are not on the hook for accepting those students," Chappelle-Nadal said.
Using similar logic, Chappelle-Nadal believes Normandy no longer can qualify for extra money in the 2015 state budget, which takes effect Tuesday.
Among other things, the budget includes $3.5 million for "intensive reading instruction" and more than $4 million for preschool programs in unaccredited or provisionally accredited districts. Citing budget shortfalls, Gov. Jay Nixon this past week froze most of the preschool funding increase but left $1 million available. He also vetoed most of the reading money, but again left $1 million available that he said was for Normandy.
But can Normandy legally get that money, since it will no longer be unaccredited?
"That's a tremendous question, and that's one we're going to have to come to terms with," said Sen. David Pearce, R-Warrensburg, who is chairman of the Senate Education Committee and a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee.
The state board's decision to free Normandy from the unaccredited label "puts in jeopardy some legislative proposals that we had in mind," Pearce said.
In addition to the budget provisions, legislators this year passed a bill allowing preschool students to be counted in the state formula for distributing basic aid to schools. The measure would apply first to unaccredited districts in the 2015-2016 school year, then gradually extend to other schools in subsequent years.
Sarah Potter, a spokeswoman for the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, said the agency is seeking legislative guidance on whether Normandy can receive preschool and reading money allotted for unaccredited districts.
House Budget Committee Chairman Rick Stream sent an email earlier this month to the department saying he intended that Normandy receive $1 million from the reading money. Stream and Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Kurt Schaefer both said they still want Normandy to receive the budgeted money, even though it will no longer be labeled as unaccredited.
"My intent was for the money to go there to help that district," said Stream, R-Kirkwood, and "it is still the intent."
If that's the case, state officials could be in the potentially awkward position of denying Normandy students the ability to transfer elsewhere because the district isn't labeled as unaccredited yet still giving Normandy money that was earmarked for unaccredited districts.
Attorney George Lenard, who is a member of the University City School Board, believes state education officials are "playing games with semantics and words." No matter whether Normandy is categorized as unaccredited or unclassified, Lenard believes that the student transfer law still pertains to it.
That law states it applies to each district "that does not maintain an accredited school."
"Normally, 'not accredited' and 'unaccredited' are synonymous, but in this circumstance, where they're trying to create another category ... it doesn't change the fact that they don't have an accredited school," Lenard said.