IRSD rescinds moratorium on school choice applications

GEORGETOWN — Upon further review.

Indian River School District’s board of education at its August meeting did an about-face on school choice, rescinding a moratorium imposed in July on applications for schools at 85 percent capacity or higher before approving recommended applications previously rejected.

“Having had the time since that (July) meeting to think about our decision, I felt that my vote did not reflect what was in the best interest of the students or their families,” said IRSD board member James Hudson, who tendered the motion to rescind.

The board’s majority subsequently approved prioritized choice applications that had been rejected in July and May of this year, as well as those with the ecommended administration/building principal approval on the August session agenda.

The moratorium, proposed by board member Leolga Wright, took effect immediately in late July. That tally was 8-0, with Rodney Layfield and W. Scott Collins were not present for the vote.

The Aug. 26 reversal came during lengthy discussion on school choice and its relative impact on school capacity and overcrowding that abounds throughout the Indian River district.

“Two other things have bothered me: the decision to change the policy regarding the 85-percent without discussion at the policy committee, and the decision to alter procedures in the middle and school choice process by implementing the moratorium,” said Mr. Hudson.

James Hudson

“I don’t disagree with some of the things that Mr. Hudson has to say as to some of the needs,” said board member James Fritz. “My problem with school choice is there needs to be uniformity throughout the district. I think we have too many buildings that are accepting kids in certain categories, and other buildings are rejecting those kids… in the same types of categories.”

Mr. Hudson’s seconded motion to rescind the school choice application moratorium passed by a 7-2-1 margin. Board members Dr. Heather Statler and Ms. Wright opposed while Rodney Layfield, who was not at the July meeting, abstained.

With the recommendation of IRSD Assistant Superintendent Dr. Jay Owens, the board opted to accept choice applications based on priorities one through five. The district’s prioritized categories are:

  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.
    Preston “Pep” Lewis, IRSD’s Supervisor of Student Services noted the first three choice priorities are set by the state of Delaware, not the district.
  8. Mr. Fritz called for uniformity.
  9. “I think as a school district we need to have some kind of a uniform standard,” Mr. Fritz said. “I just don’t agree how one building can accept and another building deny kids in the same categories. I disagreed a couple months ago when Sussex Central wasn’t allowed to school choice in kids but yet Indian River, which is at 95 percent capacity was. I didn’t think that was fair.”
  10. Additionally, Mr. Fritz said there needs to be a “lot more work on school choice. It causes a lot of confusion, a lot of frustration and a lot of mismanagement.”
    “We’ve talked and talked about school choice the last couple years,” Mr. Fritz. Said. “What’s frustrating is we even went to the state online program … a year, or two years ago. It was supposed to be the savior of school choice, that there was not supposed to be any human element in making decisions anymore. It was cut and dry.
  11. “What happens is, somebody gets a phone call from a parent and all of a sudden that went out the window.”
    Questioned by a board member, Mr. Lewis said the school application cycle spans the first Monday of November to the second Wednesday of January. Mr. Collins, who supported rescinding the moratorium, said that was a concern — the timing of the moratorium. “My problem is how we did it at one meeting in the middle of the summer … giving these parents very little time,” he said.
    “I will say that the thing that was concerning is that change at midstream,” IRSD Superintendent Mark Steele. “If we are going to make the change to school choice, we need to do it at the beginning of a choice season. I do know that we need a lot of community support, with future referendums. …
  12. “I agree with you totally and keeping people who are out of the district out is probably what it should come down to,” said board member Dr. Donald Hattier. “But as far as moving kids around within the district I have no issues with that.”
    One application in particular at the August meeting spurred specific discussion. It involved a student at East Millsboro Elementary whose family moved to the Woodbridge School District. As a “returning student” that student is a priority No. 1.
  13. “This is part of the problem,” said Mr. Fritz. “The family moved to the Woodbridge School District and the kid is in elementary school. If I moved to the Woodbridge School District, I would expect my kids to go the Woodbridge School District. This is part of the frustration I don’t get with school choice.”
  14. “This student from Woodbridge, we are saying that the tie is so significant at this point that we want to keep them from now until graduation in our system?” asked board member Dr. Heather Statler.
  15. “The problem that we have with this is that we’ve been doing it for a long time. It is within the law. The families have come to expect it and at this point they have built their lives around it,” Dr. Hattier said. “And to have an arbitrary cutoff the way we did …. we have a problem. It’s a problem that we had to do because school choice was given to us. We have allowed families to make plans and work around this essentially for the kids’ entire lives. I don’t have a problem with priorities ones, twos and threes. But if you simply are going to be moving into the district or want to move into it for whatever reason … I see that as a different category.”
  16. “We tried to make sure that we are not taking any kids that have no ties to the district,” said Mr. Hudson. “I think we’ve done a pretty good job with that.”
    Dr. Hattier believes it is the ties to the district. “We’ve allowed families to do that. We’ve encouraged them over the years because it helped us with the numbers and we do a great educational program compared to some of the other districts. I don’t blame them for wanting to be here,” said Dr. Hattier.
  17. Most of the district’s 16 schools are at or over 85-percent capacity. Several are over 100 percent capacity, most notably Sussex Central High School.
    “I’m still a little concerned that we pick and choose what we use for capacity. We went through this before, so here we sit …,” said board member Leolga Wright. “Again, overcapacity is overcapacity. We’re not consistent.”
  18. “I don’t have a problem with in-district kids being able to go from one building to another in our district,” said Mr. Fritz.”
    But a couple months ago we stopped kids from going from Indian River High School to Sussex Central High school, who wanted to come because of a program. But yet that was voted down. It is not fair for us to pick and choose winners and losers as to who gets to do what.”
  19. Those 13 applications, including 11 for IRHS students seeking SCHS’s International Baccalaureate program, were subsequently approved by a 10-0 board vote in August.
    Mr. Steele said as of the Aug. 26 meeting, the district had 134 students who were from outside IRSD, equating to 1.3 percent.
  20. “What we have seen and what we have noticed is that number has over the last couple years decreased. Because as soon as they became an issue with the board, we tried to stay away from bringing what we would call today a (priority) 5 and 6,” Mr. Steele said.
    “With the exception of Phillip Showell (Elementary), all of the buildings are still going to be overcrowded. It doesn’t make a big difference,” said Dr. Hattier.
  21. “Once the numbers get rerun here, I’d like to see a statistical comparison. If it amounts to more than a half of percentage point in each building, I’d be severely surprised.”
    Ms. Wright said the district has yet to address the administration side of this issue. “We have teachers in the district that have voiced their concern and were pleased with the fact that we were finally getting a hold on it,” Ms. Wright said. “Then they can get their classrooms kind of organized … and know how many students are going to be there.”
  22. Mr. Fritz reiterated his stance on students whose families do not reside in the district.
    “If I lived in Georgetown and all of a sudden, I decide to move and buy a home in Milford, I am probably going transfer my kids to Milford High School,” said Mr. Fritz.
    “So, the reality is we might as well just stop talking about school choice at all … wasting our time every month and just let everybody in.”
  23. “No, I think the 85 percent was a good idea it. But if you are moving kids around within the district certainly, our own district students … and take a kid from 110 percent and put him in 89 percent, it kind of levels the field in a way,” said Dr. Hattier.
  24. “The fact of the matter is we are overcrowded regardless. Whether we reject these kids or not we are overcrowded. You do what is practical. I’m a military brat. I went to every school in the world and moved because when dad moved, I moved. In my world that was acceptable. But that’s not acceptable … in this area.”
  25. According to Mr. Steele, the Indian River district’s bill for “our kids who are transferring out of the district is over $800,000 this year. So, we are going see a net loss this year. I am going to guess pretty close to between a $600,000 and $700,000 loss in choice.”
  26. Mr. Steele said the district’s goal is to keep IRSD district students from leaving for other districts, which in turn will decrease the number of out-of-district students. “It is not going to be immediate,” he said. “It is going to take time.”

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