Will students skip out?A law change that opens the door to parents moving their children between school districts anytime for virtually any reason has some school officials nervous.
By: By Catherine Idzerda, The Janesville Gazette, Wis., Superior Telegram
JANESVILLE -- A law change that opens the door to parents moving their children between school districts anytime for virtually any reason has some school officials nervous.
For parents, the rules change means more flexibility.
For school districts, the rules transform planning into guesswork and budgeting into an educated gamble.
"When we're budgeting, we're always basing it on estimates," said Carey Bradley, business administrator and interim superintendent in the Delavan-Darien School District. "But we have no history or data for this. It's added another piece that makes it hard to plan; it creates one less predictable, stable factor."
In February, a law extending the open enrollment period from three weeks to three months went into effect. The same law established a procedure to apply for an exception to the open enrollment application period if it is in "the best interest of the child."
Department of Public Instruction and most school staff acknowledge that "in the best interest of the child" is so nebulous that almost any excuse will do.
Open enrollment was established in Wisconsin in 1998. It was designed to allow parents to transfer their children from one district to another. Parents have to provide transportation, and school districts don't have to accept students if they don't have room.
The theory was that giving parents choices would foster competition between districts and encourage academic excellence.
In the 1998-99 school year, 5,926 students applied to change districts statewide.
In the 2011-12 school year, 32,591 applied.
The most recent changes in the law allow parents to apply for an exception to the open enrollment period if their children fit into one of seven categories.
For example, a parent may apply if the child has been the victim of a violent crime; is a victim of repeated and unchecked bullying and harassment; is homeless; or has changed residences because of foster care, custody arrangements or a parent's military duties.
School officials say those reasons are not problematic. They worry about the one that says an exception can be applied for if "the student's parent and the nonresident and resident school districts agree that attending the nonresident school district is in the best interest of the student."
Under the law, it's up to the resident school district to prove it's not in the best interest of the child to move.
That, officials said, is difficult to do.
The Janesville School District already has seen 15 applications to enter or leave the district outside of the three-month application period. All were either approved or are in the process of being approved.
None of the applications was contested by any district, said Tami Carlson, administrative services secretary for the Janesville district, who tracks open enrollment.
"It's very difficult (to have an application denied). You have to prove that it's not in best interest of the student, and it's almost impossible to do that," Carlson said.
Karen Logterman, Delavan-Darien School Board clerk and administrative assistant, sent a memo to her board stating, "In speaking with the DPI, they have affirmed to me that the Legislature was aware that basically open enrollment is available all year long to parents and that it will be troublesome for school districts to budget for open enrollment students."
Dan Rossmiller, director of government relations for the Wisconsin Association of School Boards agreed.
The law change effectively makes the open enrollment period "essentially 24/7, 365 days a year," Rossmiller said.
The association didn't take a stand a stand on the bill until it was amended to include a provision that would allow a student to open enroll out of a district at any time during the school year if the student's parent and the non-resident school district agreed transferring districts was in the "best interests of the student." The organization then lobbied to have the resident district included in the decision-making process.
"School leaders were concerned about opening up the possibility that parents could remove students without even having a conversation with the school about their concerns and without giving the school district a chance to address those concerns," Rossmiller wrote in an email.
But even if the resident district turns down the request, the parent can appeal to the state Department of Public Instruction, said Patrick Gasper, communications officer for the department.
"The DPI has received five appeals so far," Gasper wrote in an email. "In all cases, except one, the student was permitted to open enroll."
In the one instance, "the appeal was moot since the school year had concluded and the student had applied during the regular application period."
Another was resolved when the resident district agreed that it was in the child's best interest to transfer.
"In the other three, the department found that the denial was not in the child's best interests," Gasper wrote.
The statute doesn't define "best interests of the student," he said.
Here's another challenge: Even after transfers are approved, parents are not required to inform any of the school districts which district their child will attend.
School district won't know the impact of open enrollment applications until students show up -- or don't show up -- in September, said Steve Sperry, director of human and administrative services for the Janesville School District.
Money on the move
Of course, the nonresident school district can deny admittance to a student if it doesn't have the space, but officials said that's not likely.
"However, given that both state school aid and school district revenue limits were cut substantially last year, denying a student becomes a difficult decision because there's money that comes along with the student," Rossmiller wrote in an email.
Districts receive $6,445 in state aid for each incoming student, if the student enrolls for the entire year. The money is transferred from the home district's aid allotment to the receiving school district.
If a student transfers for part of a year, the payment prorated.
That's the challenge for school boards and districts, Rossmiller said
"The new open enrollment law creates a possibility that the number of students you have in a given school or a given class at the beginning of a semester or school year will be very different from the number you have by the end," Rossmiller wrote. "That creates complexity for school boards in terms of planning and budgeting and staffing."
How do you budget for the unknown? That's the challenge for school boards and districts, Rossmiller said.
(c)2012 The Janesville Gazette (Janesville, Wis.)
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