by Chris Harris
For the second year in a row, small Science Hill School is unhappy with the way they’re being treated by the much larger Pulaski County School System — and this time, Somerset Independent Schools have been brought into the mix.
At this week’s January meeting of the Pulaski County School Board, Superintendent Steve Butcher introduced the contracts for non-resident pupils for the 2014-15 school year, relating to Somerset and Science Hill. The contract determines the number of students from one school district that are permitted to attend one of the others.
In the case of students living outside the boundaries for either Somerset or Science Hill Schools, that number is effectively zero — at least looking ahead at the future.
The Commonwealth Journal received a copy of the contract written up for non-resident pupil enrollment between Pulaski County and Somerset school districts. It states that the number of students allowed to attend Somerset while living outside the city school district borders s “limited to those students who are ... enrolled in the Somerset Independent School District at the close of the 2013-14 school year” under the previous contract.
For the last several years, Pulaski County has allowed 240 such students to attend Somerset under the terms of previous contracts.
However, the county school district made waves for the 2013-14 school year when it changed contract terms with Science Hill, the single-facility K-8 school district in the north end of the county. After allowing 172 Pulaski territory students to attend Science Hill for the last decade, the county board of education opted to vote in a contract that would disallow Science Hill to add any new non-resident students with the exception of siblings of current students.
Science Hill Superintendent Rick Walker was unhappy with the move at the time — and he still is, since Science Hill’s 2014-15 contract with Pulaski County applies the same restriction as the current one.
“We are very disappointed the Pulaski Board of Education voted to disallow their families a choice in their children's educational placement,” said Walker. “In Science Hill, we feel our families know what is best for their children in their own individual circumstance. We try to accommodate them and provide them freedom of choice.
“Taxpayers want less bureaucratic intrusion into their lives and we are cognizant of that,” continued Walker. “We sincerely hope we can return to the decades long relationship which allowed all three districts to thrive and prosper.”
Walker said that last year in the contract negotiation, there was no compromise on the part of the county, and that his school district was led to believe they would have a certain number of new student available to them. When that didn’t happen, the Science Hill School Board voted to enact a tuition of $1,500 per student to help cover the financial loss of SEEK (Support Education Excellence in Kentucky) money from the state. A school district gets close to $3,800 per student in SEEK money per child, meaning the more students a school has, the more money they have coming from state government coffers.
The effects on Science Hill could be drastic, potentially including a higher tuition, said Walker — and that might make attending Science Hill no longer feasible for many lower-income families.
“We don’t want to discriminate; that just goes against our principles,” said Walker. “Before, it didn’t matter if you were wealthy or poor or special needs, it was just first come, first serve. If we’re going to have to charge tuition, it’s just going to be the wealthiest kids who are able to come.”
Last year, Somerset’s contract remained unchanged, but now that they’re in the same boat as Science Hill — no new non-resident students, except for siblings of those already attending. Somerset Superintendent Boyd Randolph isn’t happy either.
“I think it’s an unfortunate occurrence for the families and parents who wanted to be able to explore that option (of attending Somerset),” said Randolph, who noted that his own board had not approved the new contract yet.
“It’s obvious that when you’ve got a contract with another school district that’s done on an annual basis, it could change year to year; they could wish to change one part in that,” he added. “This type of solution (by the county) was not one that was (expected). We weren’t informed ahead of time about it, so I didn’t see these specific contract terms coming.”
Randolph acknowledged that the loss of SEEK money would have an impact on his school district as with Science Hill.
“There will be a financial impact, there most certainly will be,” said Randolph. “I don’t necessarily think it’s an insurmountable impact.
“The bigger concern that I have is that those families that did at one time have the option don’t now have it,” he added. “... Under the old contract, if we had 10 or 15 (non-resident) seniors graduate out of however many there were, (the number) could be raised up the following year to 240. Some students left for other reasons, moved out, or chose to go to the county schools, however those vacancies occurred. We had a waiting list and a process to move through the waiting list.”
While the contract restricts the number of county territory residents that can go to another school system, its wording allows for students to come to the county schools as they please.
“Students who are residents of the Somerset Independent School District boundaries may attend schools upon permission in the Pulaski County School District, without limitations to any ... SEEK or other student based funds received by the Pulaski County School District,” reads the new contract.
As for Butcher, the move to keep restrictions on Science Hill enrollment and involve Somerset in a similar situation is about protecting his own school system’s best interests.
“The biggest issue with what we’ve got are our numbers,” he said. “The numbers are flat as far as our growth goes.
“Last year, we lost about 14 (students) over previous years,” he added. “We’ve been flat over the last three or four years. We’d previously been growing by about 50 or 60 kids per year, but recently, we have not.”
Butcher compared the growth rate to Somerset, which he said has itself seen an increase of about 50 students per year recently.
“They’re doing some growing; we are not,” he said. “We feel like we need to grow as well.”
Butcher said the process behind drafting the new contract with Somerset was “very thought-out” and that restricting movement to Somerset “was the conclusion that we came to.” The new contract was approved unanimously by the school board at Tuesday’s meeting.
If either or both schools were not to sign the contract, Butcher said the restrictions would take effect anyway, with the possibility of mediation being used to resolve the matter.
Randolph said that he’s not sure what the results of not having an agreed-upon contract might be, but noted that they would “not be good for kids or families, and not be good for the community.” He said that in that case, “nobody would switch” school districts, but that it’s “very early to speculate” what the ramifications could be.
The total enrollment of Pulaski County Schools is around 8,000 students, several thousand more than Somerset and substantially more than Science Hill (which currently operates at an enrollment of a little more than 500).
Making sure that the county system’s numbers stay strong is the bottom line for Butcher.
“We’re making sure we do what’s best for the Pulaski County School District,” he said. “After all, those are our kids. We don’t want to go flat and lose staff.”