A St. Louis County Circuit Court judge ruled Friday in favor of Normandy school transfer parents who sued the state and three area school districts for not re-enrolling their children this fall.
The decision by Judge Michael Burton says that the Pattonville, Ritenour and Francis Howell districts must immediately allow the children of four families back in their schools. It potentially could allow 500 Normandy students who have been denied back into their schools to return. The ruling invalidates decisions made by the Missouri Board of Education in June intended to get the Normandy Schools Collaborative out from under the school transfer law.
“It is in the public interest for the plaintiffs to prevail,” Burton wrote. “Every child in this community has a right to a decent education.”
The transfer law gave about 1,000 transfer students from the troubled north St. Louis County school district the opportunity to attend higher performing schools last year.
Janine and Sherman Massey’s son, Chase, transferred into Pattonville schools, where he wanted to continue as a seventh-grader at Pattonville Heights Middle. But in June, the Pattonville School Board voted to deny Normandy transfer students, since the state board’s actions, it appeared, no longer required them to accept the children.
“The system does work,” Janine Massey said Friday. “I was kind of disappointed in the (Pattonville) school system for a minute, but I realize there really are people who care about our children getting a quality education.”
The transfer law was upheld by the Missouri Supreme Court in June 2013. The high court’s ruling prompted a frenzy in the weeks leading up to the first day of school, as districts worked to accommodate the requests of parents wanting to leave the unaccredited Normandy and Riverview Gardens school districts.
Both Normandy and Riverview Gardens were financially sound last August. But several months into the school year, Normandy began to buckle under the weight of the $1.5 million in tuition and transportation payments it was having to make to accommodate the children who had left. The 3,000 children who stayed were left with schools that were being depleted of resources. One elementary school closed and 104 staff were laid off to help offset the $1.5 million in monthly tuition and transportation costs.
The Missouri Legislature gave the district $1.5 million to stay afloat.
Missouri Solicitor General James Layton argued in court that continuing the transfer program under the statute would make Normandy insolvent by Oct. 31. Such a situation would force the state board either to disperse Normandy students to other districts, or attach the school system to another, he said. In either scenario, transfer students could be forced to leave their new schools mid-year.
Burton wrote that he sympathizes with state board and the Normandy Schools Collaborative. But predictions made by Missouri education officials as to Normandy’s financial conditions this fall “are too speculative to control the outcome of this ruling.”
“Regardless,” Burton goes on to write, “the State Board had no authority to create the classification that it did.”
On Monday, the Normandy Schools Collaborative will start the school year. The new district is the first in the state to fall under direct state oversight. Many of the teachers will be new. An appointed governing board is reporting to the Missouri Board of Education.
The education department responded to the ruling with a statement Friday evening.
“The State Board took action in Normandy after hearing from hundreds of Normandy residents, parents and students asking for Normandy schools to remain open,” it stated. “The community wants high quality schools in their neighborhoods, and the Department was prepared to do the hard work to help them achieve that goal.”
Officials with school districts named in the lawsuit said they would comply with Burton’s decision, but only for the children named as plaintiffs.
The Francis Howell School District had 350 Normandy students requesting to return, but only one filed suit. District officials said they will follow the court’s decision on Friday for that student.
“Our staff will be touch with the Normandy Schools Collaborative to make necessary preparations for the student to enroll in one of our schools,” administrators said in the statement.
Ritenour School District officials said “students included in the lawsuit will be greeted warmly and welcomed into our schools.”
There were 78 students total from Normandy who wanted to return to Ritenour this year. Two were involved in the lawsuit.
Pattonville School District officials also said they would comply with the ruling “and will be reviewing that decision over the next several days to determine its impact.”
Joshua Schindler, the attorney for the parents, said Burton’s ruling should open the doors to all Normandy students wanting to attend higher performing schools.
“No one can read this order as anything other than the state and districts should allow all kids to transfer,” he said.