ST. CHARLES, Mo. -- Beth Gratta has heard the whispers, read the venomous online comments and watched with dismay as some of her fellow Francis Howell High School parents 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 that saw similar demographic shifts a generation ago, 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 worry the newcomers will bring increased delinquency, larger class sizes and lower test scores.
She'll find out soon: Classes begin Thursday in the Francis Howell district. Nearly 2,600 students from the unaccredited Normandy and Riverview Gardens districts in St. Louis County are leaving for better-performing schools in Howell and other districts 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 upcoming student transfers is opening old wounds and reviving difficult public conversations about race, class, income inequality and other thorny social problems that many thought -- or at least hoped -- has been set aside decades ago. Students at the two troubled district are predominantly black, with the schools and communities they're 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 stabbing 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's only a matter of time before they go bankrupt, and state education officials plan to ask the legislature to intervene.
"So the students leave and then there is even less support for that district or that school," said Maria Ferguson, executive director of the Center on Education Policy at George Washington University. "All that money goes with them. Then you're just left with a school with not enough students and it's not very good and it's sure as hell isn't going to get any better in that situation."
The fallout could have ramifications across the state in Kansas City, home of Missouri's third unaccredited district. A pending court case will prevent transfers there -- for now.
The Kansas City case, which involves five suburban districts, alleges that the Missouri statute allowing the transfers would violate a ban on unfunded state mandates because it financially harms those districts. A plaintiff-funded survey of Kansas City parents projected that nearly 8,000 students would leave for better schools.
"I can't imagine that we all wouldn't like a real solution," said Gayden Carruth, executive director of the Cooperating School Districts of Kansas City, Mo. "This one, it seems temporary at best."
The drama has its roots in a 20-year-old decision to change Missouri's education law. In the hurriedly written legislation, a long-standing law spelling out how students could transfer from districts that didn't offer upper grades was transformed 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. The law, for instance, doesn't give the state the ability to intervene when failing districts don't pay tuition bills, and doesn't spell out how the failing district would transport transfer students.
State education officials say the rule has been used just once, an episode considered by many as a failure. After the 500-student Wellston district in the St. Louis area lost its accreditation in 2003, it quickly fell behind on paying tuition bills for its transfer students. It didn't finish reimbursing the suburban districts until June 2010 as it shut down.
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's 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. A 2001 Normandy High graduate, she said she understands some of the concerns raised by Frances Howell parents.
"The Normandy school district has a bad reputation," said Holmes, whose six younger children attend schools in the nearby Ferguson 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 in St. Charles County has been criticized on both sides, with some of its own parents wondering why their students can't receive 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.
But much of St. Charles County's rapid growth is attributed to previous white flight among families leaving the city and parts of St. Louis County where black residents relocated over the past several decades, said Sullivan Brown.
"A lot of people who moved to St. Charles County were leaving the city very deliberately," she said. "There was racial animus. And it was pretty bad."
At Francis Howell High, principal Dave Wedlock and student leaders Eric Lee and Lauren Sullivan spent Tuesday with another 148 trained student mentors helping to ease the new students' transition. Transition Day participants included all incoming ninth-graders, not just the 45 new students from Normandy. The Viking Edge program, named for the school mascot, included a tour of the 1,900-student school's sprawling campus, a review of class schedules and teacher meetings. Each new student was paired with a returning student "mentor" to help ease the inevitable adjustment.
"Our focus is on the relationships they build," Wedlock said. "Any student that walks through the door the first day is a Viking."
Lee, the senior class president, attended the July school board meeting. He called the negative reaction disappointing and vowed to join his local classmates in making the newcomers feel welcome.
"There were a lot of parents yelling at the school board to not let it happen, but it's really not their call to make," he said. "It's definitely inconvenient, and it's not an ideal thing to happen. But people should treat it as an opportunity for these kids.
"We were portrayed as stereotypical, narrow-minded Midwest town," he added. "Really, we're much more than that."