Commonwealth Journal

February 25, 2014

Furor continues over schools’ non-resident contract

Randolph: Litigation not Somerset’s ‘first choice’

by Chris Harris
Commonwealth Journal

Somerset —

Local school administrators are continuing to discuss the controversy over the county school system’s decision to drastically amend its non-resident pupil contact with the city district.
The Somerset Independent Schools Board of Education will meet on Tuesday to discuss potential litigation against the Pulaski County School System regarding the issue.
Most of the discussion is expected to take place in executive session, with the public unable to be privy to what’s said. However, Somerset Superintendent Boyd Randolph noted that it is possible the board could vote to retain legal counsel for the purpose of pursing an appeal to the state’s education commissioner depending on how the talks come out.
“Essentially, we’re going to discuss where we’re at,” said Randolph. “If we can’t get it worked out (with the county schools), we’ll appeal to the commissioner for a resolution.”
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 School, 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 Science 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.
Randolph said that litigation would “not be my first choice,” and he is hopeful the matter can be resolved without going that route.
However, “there has been some discussion with the county district leadership about sitting down and talking about the matter,” he said. “As of right now, we haven’t been able to do that. We haven’t been able to come together.”
Randolph was unable to speculate as to whether or not it was likely that the board would opt to make the appeal.
Earlier this month, the Science Hill Board of Education voted to draft their own contract to send back to Pulaski County. This contract would propose having Pulaski and Science Hill each allowing “any and all” students living within their district’s boundaries be able to enroll at the other if they wish, rather than a set number for each district.
Pulaski County Superintendent Steve Butcher said that he had not yet received this contract from Science Hill.
County school officials took issue with the way their contract was presented at the Science Hill meeting (and with Somerset’s meeting that same week to reject the Pulaski contract) however, and Assistant Superintendent Sonya Wilds provided information to the Commonwealth Journal in an attempt to make a “clarification” on certain points.
At one point in the February Science Hill meeting, Superintendent Rick Walker said, “It’s always been that they get any and all of ours and we got a set number of theirs,” in reference to previous contracts with Pulaski County.
However, that isn’t exactly the case, said Wilds.
“It is incorrect to state that we drew up a contract that allows any and all students from either the city or Science Hill to attend the county schools if they choose,” said Wilds. “Students can only attend a nonresident district under the limitations as set by the respective boards. Somerset and Science Hill issue contracts to us each year for their students to attend our schools. The independent school districts may (and do) determine any numbers or limitations as they choose.”
The contract Pulaski had drawn up in the past simply stipulated that the county was entitled to all funding (such as state SEEK money — a school district gets close to $4,000 for each student enrolled) generated by any students attending in the county but residing outside its boundaries, without limitations to the funding.
Added Wilds, “As to (Somerset Independent’s) reasons for rejection (of the most recent county contract), all the language they questioned has been included with the contracts for 10 years (since the 2003-2004 school year) except for language related to employee students. In fact, they reciprocate the same language in an addendum for us to sign when they issue their contract.”
In mid-February, the Somerset School board opted to not approve the contract submitted by the county under the new terms. They sent a statement to the Commonwealth Journal saying that the language in the contract was “inequitable in that (the county) may add Somerset resident students without limitation and at its discretion, but not vice-versa”; that it implied Somerset might discriminate against special needs students; that it would require Somerset to “accept an unnecessary and burdensome role in verifying guardianship residency when duly authorized by a local court”; and that some language is no longer applicable to a recent state rules change through House Bill 182. 
“The 2013-2014 contract with Somerset was issued before February 1 of last year as required. During the past legislative session, it was enacted that employee students who had previously been part of the nonresident contract numbers are now exempt from the contracts,” said Wilds. “The result was that for this school year, Somerset has 254 Pulaski County students, which is over the intended 240 contract number (208 Pulaski County students, as well as 46 employee students from Pulaski County who were previously included in the non-contract numbers but now are exempt). Due to the new legislation, the contract number needed adjusting regardless to control for employee students.”
Wilds also noted that Somerset and Science Hill have gained students over the past four years that grew enrollment numbers, in addition to the county territory students, while Pulaski County’s numbers have been stagnant over the same period of time.
“We are working hard for our kids providing them with excellence and opportunities that are unparalleled in the area,” said Wilds. “We are also working hard for our tax payers by continuously assessing how to be more efficient and effective but it is necessary to leverage resources for our kids in order to keep our tax rates some of the lowest in the state ... and to provide our teachers who have propelled us to one of the top performing districts in the state with more support.”