Commonwealth Journal

January 17, 2013

22 non-resident students caught in contract dispute

Students at Science Hill may find themselves in county district

by Chris Harris
Commonwealth Journal

Somerset —  

Twenty-two students find themselves caught in a contractual tug-of-war between the county’s largest and smallest public school systems following Tuesday’s meeting of the Pulaski County Board of Education.
Board members were asked to vote on approving the terms of the non-resident pupil contracts with Somerset Independent Schools, Adair County Schools, and Science Hill School. The contract allows a certain number of students who live in what would be county school district territory to enroll in another school system. 
Though the Somerset and Adair contracts remained unchanged — and were approved by the board — the contract with Science Hill became the source of debate, as it would be lowered: 150 students from the Pulaski County area could attend Science Hill, instead of the previous total of 172.
This contract was not approved by the board, which found itself in a 2-2 split: New board members Michael Citak and Brandy Daniels voted against the change, while incumbents Cindy Price and Jim Wilson voted for the contract as presented. Board member Edwin Sellers was absent.
As such, the board agreed to table the matter for future consideration. 
Steve Butcher, Superintendent of Pulaski County Schools, told the Commonwealth Journal that there have been “discussions about lowering” the number, but that “we’re just in the talking stages” currently.
“We’ve got to have more discussion about it to see what the overall good is for our district, as well as Science Hill,” he said. “... I can’t say what will happen.”
The advantage to keeping more kids for Pulaski is a financial one. 
“We get paid for every child that goes here,” said Butcher. “The advantage to us (to keep more students) would be more dollars.
“The decision will have to be made: Do they go to that district and they get the money, or come to our district and we get the money?”
Butcher noted that the percentage of students that Science Hill gets from Pulaski is less than fellow area school Somerset, which has a contract for 240 non-resident pupils in a school system of approximately 1,400, while Science Hill, a K-8 school, has approximately 550 students total with 172 of them being contracted for with the county district.
But it’s precisely because Science Hill is smaller that its superintendent, Rick Walker, feels they could be so adversely affected.
“We would lose $3,800 a kid,” said Walker, referring to the money the schools get paid per student from the state. “We’d have to lay off teachers. We’d have to figure out a way to tell the kids not to come back. For a huge district like Pulaski, 22 children may not seem like a big deal, but for a small district like ours, with a budget of less than $3 million, it’s a big deal.”
Walker stated to the Commonwealth Journal that research shows students who have to go to another school environment, thus interrupting their educational placement, causes a regression in academic achievement, and he is worried about that happening to students currently at Science Hill who would have to move to the Pulaski district for the 2013-14 school year should the new contract pass.
“How do you decide which kids to send out? I don’t think it’s in the kids’ best interest,” said Walker. “... If it can be shown to us that this is what’s best for the children, we’d be all for it, but I just don’t see it.”
At the meeting, Citak expressed concerns about dropping the student allotment for Science Hill, and felt it would have a dire impact to the financial integrity of the school and to the students, including possible layoffs. He also questioned if there had been prior discussion about the matter with Science Hill. Butcher answered that he had discussed the issue with Walker and that the board had not been happy with what they perceived as unfair reporting by Walker for some time.
Walker told the Commonwealth Journal that he hadn’t discussed the issue with Pulaski very recently, but that it’s brought up every year, and “every year we wonder (what the number) is going to be. It’s a concern,” he said.
The number had been 172 students for as long as either superintendent could remember; it’s not based on anything in particular as far as either one knew. Walker called it an “arbitrary number.”
Walker said that by the terms of the contract, Pulaski could have “any and all” of Science Hill’s students — many if not most of which go on to Pulaski County High School after graduating the eighth grade at Science Hill — and that “we set that because we don’t have much choice in the matter.”
Walker expressed a desire that all parents could have “freedom of choice” to attend whichever school they please, no matter where they live — “We don’t want to keep kids at Science Hill if they want to go to Pulaski County, because they’re a fine school too, and I want to open our doors to everyone too” — and that he thinks that the school board members will ultimately keep the numbers the way they are.
“It’s been working fine as it is,” said Walker. “All three district are doing well. I don’t see any reason to disrupt the camaraderie that we have.”