Backers of unaccredited school seek $5M

There is more weighing on the mind of Normandy High School senior Raquan Smith than his grades and college entrance exams. More even than his upcoming audition for the prestigious Juilliard School of performing arts.

Smith, 18, is worried that his St. Louis area high school might not be around when it comes time to get his diploma.

“It’s hard on a senior, you know, to not know whether you’re going to have a graduation or prom,” Smith said Monday. “It kind of takes away your motivation or your ambition to even do anything.”

Smith was joined by a parent, teacher, school administrators and community leaders at the Missouri Capitol as supporters of the unaccredited Normandy school system launched an impassioned lobbying effort for a $5 million state bailout.

The district is on track to run out of money in April, said Superintendent Ty McNichols.

If the district becomes insolvent, the state would assign its students to other districts with barely a quarter of the school year remaining. No one’s quite sure exactly how that would work out.

Gov. Jay Nixon has recommended $5 million in a supplemental state budget bill to keep Normandy financially afloat.

“I would not look at this as throwing good money at a bad situation. I would look at this as an investment in our children,” McNichols told members of the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Normandy is paying lobbyists at least $90,000 — and potentially as much as $130,000 — to coordinate its campaign for additional state aid.

The school district’s shortfall is due in part to a state law that requires unaccredited districts to pay for students who choose to transfer to other neighboring school systems. As a result, Normandy is currently paying for 987 students who live within its district to go to school elsewhere, McNichols said.

The unaccredited Riverview Gardens district in the St. Louis area also is paying for transfer students, though it’s not yet near financial insolvency because it had a greater amount of money in reserve. Kansas City schools also are unaccredited and could start paying for student transfers next school year.

Because of that, some Missouri lawmakers are concerned that any special financial aid for Normandy could create similar expectations for other unaccredited schools.

“It sets a terrible precedent for us to say we’re going to give $5 million of general revenue for a month and a half for one school district,” said Sen. Ryan Silvey, R-Kansas City, a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee.

The Normandy School District encompasses 24 municipalities in suburban St. Louis, ranging from the wealthy to impoverished. It became unaccredited in 2012, a couple of years after it absorbed several hundred students from the unaccredited Wellston School District that was shut down by the state.

Businesses, nonprofit groups and community leaders have come together under what’s being called the “24:1” initiative to focus on community development projects within the school district.

Yet without its own school system, the communities will deteriorate, said Gregory L. Robinson, who has a daughter in middle school, a son in first grade and whose oldest son graduated in 2012 from Normandy High School. Robinson himself is a Normandy graduate.

“It hurts my heart to see what’s going on,” Robinson told senators. He added: “If I don’t have a school to send my kids to, I have to move out of the Normandy district.”

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