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A Matter of Choice

Humboldt's tradition of open enrollment will likely see some changes next year

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The 2,000 or so Humboldt County families with children attending schools outside their home districts may need to do a little extra planning in the future under a draft enrollment policy coming before area school boards this week.

And just to be on the safe side, they might also want to take the time to check out the campus in their neighborhood before applying for a transfer.

While nothing is set in stone, superintendents of Humboldt County's 32 school districts have come up with a proposal that reels in the region's free-wheeling ways, after meeting almost monthly on the issue since the beginning of 2017.

For years, Humboldt County has operated under the philosophy that parents should be able to send their children to any school they want — provided there is room — regardless of where they live, a concept cemented in a countywide agreement that made transfer requests more of a formality than anything else.

But the conversation changed drastically in February when Eureka City Schools Superintendent Fred Van Vleck set off a firestorm of controversy as the policy came up for renewal this year by suggesting caps be placed on how many outside students a district could accept.

While the policy was extended for the current school term, Van Vleck's proposal was center stage as superintendents sat back down at the negotiating table.

Office of Education Superintendent Chris Hartley said the resulting draft agreement "embraces the concept of open enrollment" while at the same time attempting to balance the dichotomy between districts that see outside students flowing in and those that see their students flowing out.

"Folks are trying to use some common sense here with this thing and make it accessible to parents who are looking to utilize an interdistrict transfer," Hartley said.

Among the biggest proposed changes are the addition of strict timelines that parents and districts would need to meet moving forward — and the caveat that districts can deny a transfer if parents don't at least explore what their area schools have to offer before looking elsewhere.

Under the draft agreement, a district can decline a request if a parent or guardian "does not participate in DOR Reasonable Enrollment Information Activities, absent good cause." Those include: "a discussion with school administration/designee, orientation meeting, site visitation, or informational literature." 

The idea, Hartley said, is two-fold: to give neighborhood schools a chance to woo back potential students and to provide districts insight into why parents might be examining other options.

Maybe a school doesn't offer an aftercare program, or another campus has a special art or science program that is enticing to parents. Those are important details for administrators to know, Hartley said, while emphasizing that the clause "is not meant to be punitive by any means."

"Essentially, a district has the opportunity to share information that a parent might not be aware of, clarify any potential misconceptions, and be able to share services and programs available to students," he said. "Ensuring parents are aware of the programs and services available is important to schools and is the intent of this draft provision. "

And while the process is currently open all year, under the draft agreement, parents or guardians would need to make a transfer request during an "enrollment window" from Dec. 1 to Feb. 1. 

(For the 2018-2019 school year, the last day to apply will be Sept. 1.)

The student's home district would then have up to 10 days after the Feb. 1 deadline to approve or deny requests and forward any approvals on to the district of choice, which has until mid-February to accept transfers. Parents will be able to appeal a denial to the county Board of Education.

The basic idea, Hartley said, is to strike a balance between preserving school choice and giving districts the ability to better plan for staffing and other needs by knowing how many students to expect in their classrooms.

For example, state education code requires districts to notify employees about potential staff reductions in March, a decision that depends heavily on how many kids are expected to walk through the doors the following year.

"We're just trying to get some standards in place that can be consistent for everyone," Hartley said.

What the draft does not include are the caps that Van Vleck had proposed back in February.

At the time, the superintendent made clear in a letter to his staff that ECS was seeking a serious shift in the status quo, noting that the district board had placed a "high priority on lowering the number of parents sending their students to different districts" when he was hired.

Van Vleck and other superintendents contacted for this story by the Journal referred questions back to the county Office of Education.

An estimated 13 percent of Humboldt County's 18,000 school-age children — or 2,340 students — currently take advantage of the open enrollment policy. Of those, around 800 — or 34 percent — live within Eureka's school boundaries, according to data presented to the ECS board this year.

And that migration doesn't just translate to empty classrooms — each child also takes with him or her about $8,000 a year in state funds. For ECS, the total loss was an estimated $6.4 million.

Part of the issue for Eureka also centered on an apparently lax application of the open enrollment agreement, with some districts failing to enforce the requirement that home districts sign off before a student can be accepted as a transfer. (Students attending charter or private schools are exempt from that condition.)

Things apparently came to a head over at ECS last winter when the Cutten School District brought more than 130 inter-district requests for students it had already enrolled but Van Vleck said had not first gone to Eureka for approval.

Cutten settled the matter with Eureka City Schools back in July, agreeing to pay $260,000 to avoid a potential lawsuit over the reporting failure. About a quarter of Cutten's students are transfers, with the vast majority — around 75 percent — coming out of ECS.

That contradiction of how districts are impacted by transfers — and ensuring an accurate accounting of those numbers — were focal points of enrollment policy discussions, according to Hartley.

He said the area's superintendents showed a willingness to compromise in order to come up with an agreement.

"The process has been collaborative," Hartley said. "We literally went line by line trying to find language through consensus."

With a draft in hand, superintendents are heading back to their respective boards this week to gauge their responses before reconvening as a group sometime around the third week of December with the goal of setting a final policy.

If approved, the agreement will go into effect for the 2018-2019 school year with a review slated to take place in September of 2018 to work on a multi-year deal.

"We're looking forward to that opportunity to have an agreement in place so we can say, 'Here it is,' and then begin an awareness campaign at that point," Hartley said.

Kimberly Wear is the assistant editor and a staff writer at the Journal. Reach her at 442-1400, extension 323, or kim@northcoastjournal.com. Follow her on Twitter @kimberly_wear.

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