IRSD changes school choice decisions a week before school

After making a major statement at their last meeting, the Indian River School District is backpedaling. The school board rejected a stack of school choice applications in July, but in August accepted most of them, and more.

In many cases, the decision came months too late: only eight days before the school year started.

Many school board members had a change of heart after the July meeting, so on Aug. 26, voted to accept 42 August applications, 48 July applications and even 13 May applications (most of whom were IRHS students desireing Sussex Central High School’s special International Baccalaureate program).

Coming three months late, none of those 13 actually used their school choice appointment: eight went to IR; two accepted admission to tech or charter schools; and three listed a change of residence, so they can naturally attend SC.

(That doesn’t mean all 13 would have accepted admission, anyway. Some families shop around and might apply for several programs, but can only choose one.)

Of course, anyone who lives in a school’s geographic zone is guaranteed attendance at their local school. Anyone else must rely on school choice. And school choice is not a guarantee.

Principals and a district committee make a recommendation, but the school board ‘may’ reject applications after 85 percent school capacity. Most IRSD schools have exceeded 85 percent enrollment.

“When are we going to step up and say, ‘You moved from the district, you’re no longer in Indian River School District, and you need to go back to your school’?” asked board member Leolga Wright in July, leading the push for IRSD to adhere to the 85 percent threshold.

IRSD had already stopped accepting most out-of-district students with no connection to the district. But it wasn’t until July that they tried to prohibit in-district students from moving around.

But the following month definitely gave board members a chance to think about what they’d decided — and gave families time to protest.

“I was very disappointed how school choice was dealt with last month,” said Jim Hudson. After thinking about it, “I felt that my vote did not reflect what was in the best interest of students and their families.”

Some families would now have children in three different schools. Some juniors wouldn’t get to graduate from their longtime school district.

Most of all Hudson, felt the board was abandoning its policy.

Jim Fritz demanded uniformity. He was still upset about the May decision, in which IR students were prohibited from choicing into Sussex Central, although a similar number of SC students were allowed at IR.

First, the board revoked their previous decision to adhere more stringently to their policy that allows a cut-off at 85 percent (Heather Statler and Wright dissented, and Layfield abstained due to his prior absence.)

Policy Committee Chairperson W. Scott Collins was actually absent in July when the lock-down was decided.

“My problem was how we did it at one meeting in the middle of summer, giving these parents very little time to react to it,” said Collins, who supports a mandatory 85 percent rule. “We put a lot of people in a lot of hardship by dropping it on them.”

In fact, Collins said, recent sentiment was indeed to tighten up school choice, but warn families far in advance. For instance, students might eventually be sent back to their home schools, but only at a transition year, like when entering middle or high school.

The school choice cycle is the first Monday in November to the second Wednesday in January.

Several families attended the Aug. 26 meeting, hoping the board would reconsider its decision.

“To say that this summer has been extremely stressful is an understatement,” said parent Stacy Hennigan, trying to get her daughter into Lord Baltimore, where her big brother attends. “There are other families … who are trying to get their second child in the door. I am here in hopes that you will reconsider your decision.”

Parent Chad Carpenter was looking at the broader picture. Hearing that the board cracked down on school choice, he had pulled his daughter back to her regular school. But he wanted assurances for the district’s future, especially with recent overcrowding.

“I guess my question is: We keep doing referendums. If they continue to fail, what is the plan for it … we’re going to continue to support the school district … I’m gonna come to every meeting, everything I can be a part of. But I want to know: what is the plan?”


All the usual arguments


As usual, the board’s discussion brought the same frustrations and perceived exceptions.

The problem is, “If I moved to Woodbridge School District, I would expect my kids to move to Woodbridge School District,” said Fritz, especially for elementary schoolers.

Hudson was more concerned with high schoolers who have to leave before their senior year.

“Then you’re not going to like my answer,” mused Fritz. “We’re picking winners and losers. We’re arbitrarily making that kind of vote … I don’t believe somebody in elementary school has created such a strong tie they can’t go to Woodbridge School District.”

“The problem is we’ve been doing this for a long time,” Donald Hattier said. “It is within the law, the families have come to expect it, and at this point they have built their lives around it.”

Sussex Central is at 119.3 percent capacity, while Indian River is at 95.4 percent.

“We’re overcrowded regardless,” Hattier said. “You do what’s practical. You have two wrongs, you do something in between … whether you add or subtract 15 other students isn’t gonna make a daggone difference. … [But if] we cut it off the way you want to cut it off, a lot of people lose.”

“I trust when Dr. Layfield said they can accommodate them,” Fritz said afterward.

Meanwhile, now at 108.5 percent capacity, Selbyville Middle School has basically stopped accepting school choice applications.

Next, the board approved a number of 2019-2020 school choice applications for a variety of students, (Collins and Wright dissented), most of which the principals recommended, but the board would have rejected a month earlier.

This time, Preston Lewis had to read the requests aloud. The report only featured a fraction of the applicants, since “this agenda was based on the 85 percent [rule] that was made in July,” Lewis said.

Finally, insisting upon a technicality of the agenda, Layfield also demanded to revisit the May decision to reject 13 students from SCHS. 

The vote was unanimous to accept the students, although none of them used the advantage.


IRSD approaches 11,000 students


The board definitely needs more discussion, Fritz told the Coastal Point afterward. Other school districts do just fine by cutting school choice off at a particular number.

“I think school choice is a great program when looking for programs that are offered for your child, in terms of programs and atmosphere, but I believe it’s become a crutch,” Fritz said.

“During referendum time, I heard a lot of … ‘If you’re as overcrowded as you say you are, why do you allow students to school choice in?’ I get that, and it’s a perception,” Fritz said. “We actually have more kids that school choice out than … into the district.”

As of late August, the IRSD enrollment was 10,855.

At last count, over 300 students choice into Indian River School District, and 134 choice out, said Superintendent Mark Steele. Because state dollars follow the student, IRSD actually has a nearly $800,000 net loss of funding.

On the other hand, if nobody ever left, IRSD would get more money, but would potentially be even more overcrowded.

“Why people wanna come to our district is because of the accomplishments,” Steele said. “Education’s come to the forefront of a lot of parents’ [minds] and they are gonna shop for the best school they can find for their kids.”


By Laura Walter

Staff Reporter