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Tension, venom as students bused into suburban Mo.

Changes reopen old scars, queries on race and class

Nearly 2,600 students from unaccredited school districts in St. Louis County are leaving for better-performing schools after the state Supreme Court upheld such busing.
Nearly 2,600 students from unaccredited school districts in St. Louis County are leaving for better-performing schools after the state Supreme Court upheld such busing.Robert Cohen/St. Louis Post-Dispatch via Associated Press

ST. CHARLES, Mo. — Beth Gratta has heard the whispers, read the venomous online comments, and watched with dismay as some of her friends and neighbors publicly condemned a plan to bus 475 students from a distressed urban school district nearly 30 miles away to her children's better-performing suburban schools.

Yet Gratta, who teaches in another area district, said she is hopeful that her daughters, ages 7 and 13, and other students will be more accommodating than the parents, politicians, and community leaders who fear that the newcomers will bring increased delinquency, larger class sizes, and lower test scores.

She will find out soon: Classes began Thursday in the Francis Howell district. Nearly 2,600 students from unaccredited Normandy and Riverview Gardens districts in St. Louis County are leaving for better-performing schools after a recent Missouri Supreme Court ruling upheld such moves.


''The apprehension is still there,'' Gratta said. ''A lot of the parents feel their children's education will somehow be lessened.''

The wave of student transfers is opening old wounds and reviving public conversations on race, class, income inequality, and other thorny social problems that many thought — or at least hoped — had been set aside decades ago. Students at the two troubled districts are predominantly black, with the schools and communities they are headed to largely white.

The rancor was on full display in mid-July, when 2,500 people packed the first Francis Howell school board meeting after the district agreed to accept the former Normandy students. Some spoke obliquely of the ''wrong element.'' Others were more direct, calling for metal detectors at school entrances and predicting a rash of stabbings and violent fights.

The two troubled districts will be required to pay the receiving districts an estimated $30 million to accommodate the moves. School leaders in Normandy and Riverview Gardens say it is only a matter of time before they go bankrupt, and state education officials plan to ask the Legislature to intervene.


The fallout could have ramifications across the state in Kansas City, home of Missouri's third unaccredited district.

Five suburban districts there allege the Missouri law allowing the transfers would violate a ban on unfunded state mandates. A plaintiff-funded survey of Kansas City parents projected that nearly 8,000 students would leave for better schools.

The latest legal maneuvers have their roots in a 20-year-old decision to change Missouri's education law.

In the hurriedly written legislation, a longstanding student transfer law was revised to force unaccredited districts to pay for sending students to nearby accredited schools.

But little attention was paid to its consequences, since lawmakers at the time were dealing with larger questions about overall state education funding and revamping how schools were accredited.

Kathleen Sullivan Brown, an associate professor of education at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, blamed poor planning by school administrators and a lack of political leadership for the current crisis. She says it is only a matter of time before more districts encounter similar situations, whether in Kansas City or elsewhere.

''We have other districts that are going to be in trouble next year,'' she said. ''We should be preparing for Round 2.''

Normandy parent Christina Holmes is sending her 14-year-old son, Jyrome, to the Howell district after what she called a succession of unpleasant encounters with Normandy teachers and administrators. ''The Normandy school district has a bad reputation,'' said Holmes, whose six younger children go to schools in nearby Ferguson-Florissant district. ''It's a constant battle over there. So hopefully we'll have a better year.''


Normandy's choice of the far-flung Francis Howell district has been criticized on both sides, with some of its own parents wondering why their students cannot get free transportation to closer schools. Normandy officials say the decision was one of cost as well as access: Francis Howell's per-student reimbursement is thousands of dollars less than some neighboring districts.