diary on the life of Michael Brown, you might notice one detail that's both touching and disturbing:
Mike's graduation photograph was taken in March 2014, still many months ahead of when he would be able to graduate in August. Imagine the "why" of this fact:
The grinding poverty in Mike's world only allowed Normandy High School to acquire two graduation gowns to be shared by the entire class. The students passed a gown from one to the other. Each put the gown on, in turn, and sat before the camera to have their graduation photographs taken. Until it was Mike's turn.
What kind of American school would have to share robes across the entire senior class?
The kind that's been the subject of a lot of attention from the state board of education.
This district was created by merging two of the poorest, most heavily minority districts around St. Louis—Normandy and Wellston. The poverty rate for families sending their kids to Normandy Schools was 92 percent. At Wellston School District, the poverty rate was 98 percent. Every single student in the Wellston district was African American.
Still, the state education board voted to merge the districts in 2010 (the first change to state school district boundaries in thirty-five years). Plagued by white flight, crashing property values that destroyed tax revenues, and a loss of state funds as the better-off residents of the area sent their children to private schools, the resulting district isn't just short of gowns, it's short of everything. Residents of the district voted again and again to raise their own property taxes, until their rates were actually the highest in the state, but a higher percentage of nothing was still nothing, and district revenues trended steadily down.
After the merger, the state board proceeded with the next step on their plan. In 2012, they rated Normandy as a failed district, removed its accreditation, and placed it under direct state control. The idea was to reform the district to the state board's design, only there was one problem: the Missouri State Supreme Court ruled that students in a failed district had the right to go to other districts. Hundreds of Normandy students signed up to do just that, heading for classrooms in surrounding districts, some of which were majority white. At first, this generated tension:
News of the Supreme Court’s upholding of the transfer law initially sparked anger and fear among some white Francis Howell parents.
“I deserve to not have to worry about my children getting stabbed, or taking a drug, or getting robbed,” one mother said during a school board meeting, referring to the prospective arrival of Normandy students.
“We don’t want this here in Francis Howell,” another parent said.
But for the most part that attitude didn't last. Normandy students settled in at their new districts, and despite a financial drain—Normandy had to cover the cost of transportation and pay tuition to the other districts for those students who transferred—things seemed on an upswing in the district.
...the remaining students and school community came together to celebrate a spirit of new beginnings. They held pep rallies and welcome-back-to-school gatherings. Students at Normandy High School said they began tutoring each other to improve the school’s academic ranking...
Indeed, walking the halls of Normandy High School at the beginning of the school year, there was a sense of optimism despite the dire state of things.
Well, you know what they say about optimists. Read below the fold for what happened next.
Funding the transfer students was costing the district more than it cost to educate students within the district. Part of that was transportation, but most of it was the simple fact that other districts spent far more on their students than the poverty-stricken Normandy district.
The state board of education took over the district's finances, but rather than providing a new stream of revenue, they figured out a simple way to reduce costs:
On Friday afternoon, the board met in a hastily called meeting to change the Normandy’s accreditation status -- or at least how that accreditation is described. Normandy now has “accreditation as a state oversight district,” the revised June minutes now read.
Get that? The state board, which had taken away the accreditation, now argued that Normandy was
accredited, magically, without having the district actually meet any of the standards they had set. How did that happen?
“The Missouri State Board of Education, pursuant to its statutory authority to waive its rules, including those regulating accreditation, has accredited the Normandy Schools Collaborative and thus its schools,” the state’s motion to the court says. “Because of that accreditation, the Plaintiffs are not entitled to relief. … ”
The school is now accredited because the board has the right to ignore the law the board claimed it was enforcing in the first place, and parents now have no right to transfer their kids to another district ... because the school is accredited.
Naturally, the case is headed back to court. And if the accreditation by decree isn't enough for you, there's another bit of magic applied by the board. That transfer law? It only applies to school districts. But see, Normandy Schools are no longer in a school district. Normandy schools are now in a special collaborative and, according to the state board, "are not in any district in this state." So there you go. You can transfer from a district if you're not in a district, and if you happen to be in a district, it's magically accredited. Problem solved.
So who actually runs Michael Brown's school district? Well, the president of the board of education is Peter F. Herschend of Branson, Missouri. Herschend isn't a former teacher, or a former principal, and doesn't have any training in the education field. He's the owner of Herschend Family Entertainment, which runs Silver Dollar City and other amusement parks. He's also one of the biggest contributors to the Republican Party in the state.
So, when you're wondering who runs Michael Brown's school district—when you're wondering who's in control of an urban, minority district so poor that the students have only two graduation gowns to share—it's a white Republican millionaire from out state.