Commonwealth Journal

February 12, 2014

Science Hill & Somerset schools reject contracts

County School Board wants to limit non-resident tradition in effort to preserve state funding

by Chris Harris
Commonwealth Journal

Somerset —

The idea that the Pulaski County School System would prevent any students living in its district from attending class elsewhere in the area isn’t sitting well with the other local schools.
On Tuesday night, both the Somerset Independent and Science Hill school boards rejected the contract sent to them by the county district regarding non-resident pupil attendance.
In mid-January, the Pulaski County School Board approved contracts that would disallow any students living within the boundaries of the county district to attend school at either Somerset or Science Hill, unless they were siblings with a student that was already enrolled at one of the other systems. This would be applicable for the upcoming 2014-15 school year.
Last year, Pulaski County enacted such a contract with Sci-ence Hill, after years of allowing 172 non-resident pupils to attend the northern Pulaski K-8 school. However, in prior years, Somerset has been allowed 240 county territory students, so this was a drastic change for the city school district.
The contract that Pulaski County drew up would allow any and all students from either the city or Science Hill to attend the county schools if they choose.
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. More students going to the county district rather than the two smaller ones means more state money for the larger system, and less for the others.
There has been a backlash in the community as a result of the county school board’s decision, with a community group forming on Facebook called “Pulaski County Parents for School Choice.” The group had 535 “likes” as of Wednesday afternoon.
The Science Hill Board on Tuesday unanimously decided not to accept Pulaski County’s contract as written, and instead, with the help of legal counsel Winter Huff, drafted their own contract to send back to the county. Science Hill’s would take a much more wide-open approach — any and all students from Science Hill who want to attend a county school can, and any and all from Pulaski County territory who want to attend Science Hill may as well.
At last month’s Science Hill Board meeting, the vote to pass Pulaski County’s contract failed for lack of a motion. This time, the results were much different.
“It’s always been that they get any and all of ours and we got a set number of theirs,” said Walker at the meeting of previous contracts with the county, “and we took it ...”
At Somerset’s board of education meeting on Tuesday, the Pulaski County contract was rejected by unanimous vote. The city school district has not come up with an alternative as of yet, according to Somerset Superintendent Boyd Randolph.
“We’ve gotten quite a bit of feedback,” said Randolph after the meeting of local reaction to the contract issue between the school systems. “There seems to be a lot of support for choice in the community.”
Said school board chairperson Scott Gulock, “If it’s not broke ... why change it?”
Randolph told the Commonwealth Journal that the board didn’t want to send a message that it approved of limiting educational options to families.
“For years, we’ve provided an opportunity for those residents that reside in the county district that they are able to attend (Somerset schools) even though it’s a very limited 240 students,” said Randolph. (Though most years, non-resident enrollment has been maxed out, it was slightly less than 240 students this current school year, said Randolph.)
“If we were to have ratified (the county contract), it would have meant that those folks would not have had an option,” he added. “I’m speaking for the board, and I hope I’m not speaking incorrectly, that wasn’t a message they wanted to convey.”
In a written statement, the Somerset Independent School Board listed the reasons for rejected the county contract as including the following:
• The proposed contract language is inequitable in that Pulaski County Schools may add Somerset resident students without limitation and at its discretion, but not vice-versa.
• The proposed contract contains language that implies that the Somerset Independent Schools might discriminate against Special Needs students. Administrative assurances, as well as state and federal statutes make this an unnecessary component. Inclusion of such language implies conditions that do not exist.
• The proposed contract contains language that would require the Somerset Independent School District to accept an unnecessary and burdensome role in verifying guardianship residency when duly authorized by a local court.
• The proposed contract contains language that is no longer applicable due to a recent ruling by the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals; and the proposed contract contains language that implies the Pulaski County School System will permit children of the Somerset Independent School System employees that live in the Pulaski County Schools district to attend Somerset, even though that issue is addressed and provided for through state legislation, HB 182 (passed in 2013).
“The Somerset Independent School District continues to be committed to supporting these students and their families,” read the statement. “Because the Pulaski County Board of Education, through the proposed student exchange contract, is seeking to limit and eventually end this opportunity for its residents the Somerset Independent Board of Education cannot ratify the student exchange contact proposed by the Pulaski County Board of Education.”
Randolph said that he spoke to Pulaski County Supt. Steve Butcher on Wednesday afternoon about the matter and that the conversation was “cordial,” with the aim of hopefully being able to work out the situation without going to legal mediation — which could be the ultimate outcome with all three school systems.
When asked about the conversation, however, Butcher’s words made an agreement between the city and county schools sound less likely.
“Our position has not changed,” said Butcher. “We put a lot of thought into the school contracts. ... They can appeal (to the state education commissioner) if they choose.”
Butcher told the Commonwealth Journal last month that county school system enrollment was going “flat,” and that the decision to restrict county territory students from going elsewhere was done to keep his school districts from losing more enrollment, and more money.
“We had a lengthy meeting on the contract, and we’re moving on to other things right now,” he added. “We’re pretty solid on what our thinking is with all that.”
CJ Staff Writer Heather Tomlinson contributed to this story.