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New guidelines close SCSD open enrollment

Solon school board approves more space for local growth

SOLON– The Solon school board approved changes which should effectively muzzle open enrollment for at least the upcoming school year.
At a special meeting Aug. 15, board members agreed to new guidelines which lowered the number which triggers the closing of a grade level to open enrollment.
“The takeaway is the new policy would basically close open enrollment for all practical purposes unless we had a very small kindergarten class,” board member Tim Brown said.
Added language also reverses a previous position which allowed siblings of open-enrolled students to be accepted automatically into the district.
Open enrollment is the process by which a family living outside a school district’s boundaries can petition for a new student’s admission. The approval or denial of an open enrollment request is decided by the receiving district, and the application must be made by March 1 for the following school year (Sept. 1 for kindergarten students enrolling in school for the first time).
If the application is accepted, the per-pupil funding provided by the state follows with the student to the new district.
In the 2015-16 school year, 166 of the district’s students had open-enrolled into the system.
Board members began reviewing the guidelines last month and revisited the issue at a regular Aug. 8 meeting before accepting the changes at the special meeting Monday.
Currently, the district closes open enrollment by grade when the number of students is 10 less than the established maximum enrollment. That cushion preserves space for students who physically move into the district, a population the district is required to serve.
Under the new guidelines, that cushion is increased to 30 students, except for fifth through eighth grades. The cutoff for the middle school will be 35 students under the maximum enrollment line.
The enrollment target for the entire school system is 1,660 according to the OE outline.
Brown and board member Adam Haluska teamed up to draft the proposed changes presented at the Aug. 8 session.
“We’ve got a unique town, we’ve got unique qualities as a district, I think everybody in the community feels that way, so we really want to preserve what we have,” Haluska told the other board members. “We can’t obviously control growth, but we can kind of keep our hands on it a little bit.”
Haluska said he and Brown started working with the idea of protecting the lower elementary levels, while allowing some growth at the intermediate grades.
“With the new middle school being built and the fourth attendance center, we’re going to have some growth in there, but this just kind of controls it, especially for this year and the year after,” Haluska said.
The middle school will open in the fall of 2017, while a fourth building, targeted as an intermediate elementary, is likely two years away.
While the new guidelines would revoke the clause which automatically accepted the siblings of open-enrolled students, Haluska said the promise would be honored for those in the district prior to the 2016-17 school year.
“We didn’t want to break any families up when a child’s already in the district,” he said.
The proposed guidelines also made further clarifications, including:
• If an open-enrolling family requests spots for students in several grade levels and one of those grade levels has been closed, all of the applications may be denied;
• Enrollment in the preschool and 4-year-old programs does not constitute residency within the district; and
• Applications received after the May 1 deadline will not be approved unless good cause exists as defined by Iowa law. Previously, the district accepted late applicants who were willing to pay personal tuition.
Brown acknowledged the moves changed the rules for families planning to try open enrolling into the district.
“I’m not opposed to closing it, but my concern is over just changing what we’ve told people year after year,” Brown said. “It’s one thing when you go into it proactively and know what you’re getting into, but it’s another thing when you’ve been told one thing and all the sudden you’re pulling the rug out.”
The revised enrollment caps would effectively close open enrollment for all grade levels , Brown said.
But, that doesn’t mean the district will stop growing, officials noted during the meeting. People with school-aged children are continuing to move to Solon.
“I had seven people today, families either here or on their way,” board secretary Kris Wentzien said during the meeting. The enrollment numbers presented were accurate as of 4 p.m., she said. “But at 5 o’clock it might be different. It’s very hard to monitor.”
Board member Rick Jedlicka said the revisions addressed the concerns he expressed last month.
“I think it sends the proper message and allows us a little bit of leniency,” Jedlicka said. “If we do have a year where for some reason the numbers come in low, it allows us to keep the numbers kind of where we want them to keep staffing the way it is.”