Indian River puts moratorium on school choice applications

DAGSBORO — Simmering discussion and debate over school choice and overcapacity within the Indian River School District has reached the boiling point.

After lengthy discussion over school choice applications Monday night, IRSD’s board of education took the moratorium route, unanimously agreeing to no longer accept any school choice applications for any school that is over 85 percent capacity.
The moratorium, proposed by school board member Leolga Wright, is effective immediately.

“I think we need to take a step back … breathe … use the 85 percent. It’s good common sense,” Ms. Wright said.

The board’s vote was 8-0. Board members Rodney Layfield, who arrived later during the meeting, and W. Scott Collins were not present for moratorium vote.
School choice is a sensitive subject in the space-strapped Indian River district which is pursuing a third major capital improvement referendum for a new high school and classroom additions.

The moratorium presently impacts all but four of its 15 elementary, middle and high schools, based on July 23 enrollment data, provided by Preston “Pep” Lewis, IRSD’s administrator of student services.
The school board Monday night did approve choice applications for John M. Clayton Elementary, Phillip Showell Elementary and Southern Delaware School of the Arts but rejected all others.

The sweeping application rejection included three at Sussex Central High School that was at 117.6 percent capacity, and others for Georgetown Elementary (110.7 percent), Selbyville Middle (107 percent), Georgetown Middle (102 percent), North Georgetown Elementary (97.9), East Millsboro Elementary (97.7), Indian River High School (94.7), Millsboro Middle (91.8) and Lord Baltimore Elementary (89.7).

Overall, of the 53 applications submitted at the July 29 meeting, 40 had administration recommendation for approval.
Board member Jim Hudson took issue with inconsistency in the choice application recommendations submitted from building principals and assistant superintendent Dr. Jay Owens for acceptance or denial.

“You (Ms. Wright) and I don’t always agree on school choice, but this doesn’t seem to be consistent. This doesn’t add up tonight,” said Mr. Hudson. “Everybody knows I want to work with the people that live in the district. I have made that point clear and I know some people don’t agree with it. I feel like we really should take care of our own kids in our district.”

“I am having a lot of trouble tonight,” Mr. Wright said. “This seems like we are all over the place. We’re accepting some, denying some. We’re here. We’re there. We need to do one way or the other. This just doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense, what we are doing here tonight.”

The Indian River School District utilizes Data Service Center’s web-based Delaware Public and Charter School Choice Application process.
Per present policy, school choice priority in the Indian River School District is given to the following categories:

  1. Returning students who continue to meet the requirements for the program or school, including students graduating from one school to another within a single program.
  2. Students who meet the requirements for the program or school and who seek to attend based upon the residence of the student’s parent within the designated feeder pattern, if any, for the school.
  3. In-district siblings of in-district students who are already enrolled in the program or school and who will be returning to the program or school for the following academic year provided that the siblings meet the requirements for the program or school. Exiting students are not considered siblings for this enrollment preference.
  4. Out-of-district siblings of out-of-district students who are already enrolled in the program or school and who will be returning to the program or school for the following academic year provided that the siblings meet the requirements for the program or school. Exiting students are not considered siblings for this enrollment preference.
  5. District students.
  6. Children of school employees holding a permanent position that meets the state requirements as a pension eligible position; as long as they otherwise meet the criteria of the program or school and reside in the state of Delaware.
  7. Non-district students.
    “Overcapacity is overcapacity no matter what school it is,” said Ms. Wright. “At some point in time we are going to need to buckle down and make the decision to say, ‘We’re not doing school choice anymore.’”.
    Board member Gerald Peden has serious concern regarding consistency.
    “Some schools, the kids are rated priority one and were rejected only because of capacity. Yet at other schools they are priority one … overcapacity … and we accepted them. That is discrimination,” Mr. Peden said.
  8. Board colleague James Fritz added. “There are other priorities, too. Same priority is being rejected at one school and accepted at another school. You have to accept them all or you reject them all. It needs to be standard throughout the school district.”
    Board member Dr. Heather Statler referred to the recommendation to accept nine choice applications – eight for kindergarten and one for first grade – at Lord Baltimore Elementary.
  9. “I continue to struggle. Here is a building that is 90 percent capacity. Our policy says 85 and we’re going to sit here tonight, and we are going to make that choice, be asked to make that choice to not abide by our own policy,” said Dr. Statler. “School choice is not a guarantee.”
    Lord Baltimore Principal Pam Webb said the recommendation to accept was because there are ample spaces for students in kindergarten classes.
  10. In defense of principals, particularly elementary school principals, IRSD Superintendent Mark Steele said there is a great deal of unknown, specifically involving kindergarten enrollment, in assembling staff.
    “You don’t know how many kids. You assume it’s roughly the same,” Mr. Steele said.
  11. Hot topic
    For some time, school choice has frequently surfaced as a hot discussion topic at IRSD board meetings.
    “When we discussed this back a year, maybe longer than that, we set a percentage capacity,” Ms. Wright said. “I believe that the policy was going to be — and help me if I am wrong — 85 percent, but for whatever reason we go to 95 percent.”
    “I think the policy says ‘may’ reject at 85 percent,” said Mr. Lewis.
    “So, my question would be, why are we even addressing applications,” said Ms. Wright.
  12. “It appears going down this list that we are picking and choosing as to what we accept because of capacity or we reject because of capacity. And I have a problem with that. If we are already at the point that we are overcrowded now, and that is everything that we hear — we need a referendum because we are overcrowded — help me understand why you would still accept people.”
    “When are we going to step up and say, ‘If you move from the district you are no longer in the Indian River School District, and you need to go back to your (home) school. I’m not trying to be a bad person,” Ms. Wright said. “However, I am a board member, and I may be the only one of the 10 that feel obligated to make sure that the students within the IRSD that reside in the IRSD get the best education and all the best faculties that they can have here.”
  13. “When we set a policy, we need to abide by that policy, so that – and I’m not here to do your job for you, Pep. I think your office does well,” Ms. Wright said. “But when I think when we set 85 percent we’re done. We wouldn’t be in this predicament that we are in now if we abide by what we say, and we do what we say.”
    Discussion culminated with Ms. Wright’s call for a moratorium.
    “I think we need to put a moratorium on school choice,” Ms. Wright said. “I also think that we need to take the step forward now and look at the students that we have here who are not in our district and start the process of notifying those parents to say, ‘We are no longer able to take them because we are overcapacity. We’re kicking that can farther on down the road and it’s getting worse.”
  14. “How are we going to make sure it’s upheld? We passed all these things before,” said Mr. Fritz. “The problem is we have some principals who don’t want to say ‘no’ to parents and we have some board members who don’t want to say ‘no’ to parents.”
    “All you have to do is tell us, ‘Shut it down.’ And we will follow that,” said Mr. Steele. “But once we shut it down, it’s down.”
  15. With the moratorium proposal, Ms. Wright said “we go back and look at our figures and we start the process of putting the kids back in their schools and the district they belong in.”
    “It seems like every month, or every other month, or every so many months, school choice surfaces again from a different angle,” Ms. Wright said.
  16. “But we still have that one same issue, in 80 percent of our schools it is capacity. I find it hard to understand why a principal knowing that they are overcapacity is going to continue taking these students and then you are going to come to the board, and say, ‘I need this and this.’ We need to abide by 85 percent. But there is always that little loophole in there, with ‘may’ and everybody wants to come back. Take ‘may’ out. It puts no one under pressure. It’s 85 percent. That is it.”
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