School choice, capacity issues stir IRSD board concerns

GEORGETOWN – School choice, school capacity and overcrowding are stirring serious concerns within the ranks of the Indian River School District board of education.

Building principal recommendations to accept 48 or 63 school choice applications fueled discussion at the board’s June 19 meeting. It ultimately led the agenda item being tabled in lieu of further scrutiny and discussion.

“We’ll have a conversation,” said Preston A. Lewis, IRSD’s Administrator of Student Services.

That conversation will include more detailed breakdown regarding school choice by grade level, building and programming, such as International Baccalaureate and Spanish Immersion.

Indian River School District, one of the largest districts in Delaware, has eclipsed the 10,000-student plateau. Enrollment growth in recent years have many buildings over-capacity, which spurs the need for more classrooms and buildings.

“We have areas in this district that are overcrowded,” said IRSD school board member Jim Fritz. “We have added on numerous teachers over the past few years. We’ve grown by numerous students. I don’t know how to realign this program … with the state’s guidelines on it. I just think we have to be very careful because we are the ones that are paying the extra tax dollars and going to the citizens. We would like to educate every child but we don’t have space for every child. That is what other school districts and their schools are for.”

Board member Dr. Heather Statler questioned the recommended school choice approval for four incoming freshmen at Sussex Central High School when the high school is, according to figures, 122 students over-capacity.

IRSD Superintendent Mark Steele explained there is unknown with an upcoming July rollover of ninth graders coming in.

“We will not know for sure until that rollover takes place, exactly the number. It could be more; it could be less,” said Mr. Steele.

“So, if we don’t know those numbers why would we accept those students at this point?” Dr. Statler inquired. “I know we have had conversations before about perhaps 10th graders or 11th graders – not wanting to take them out of the building because we would be separating them from their friends and social groups. I understand that. But at that ninth-grade level, with them coming in, why would we not take opportunity to re-evaluate at that point?”

“If the principal recommends these school choices applications be accepted or denied that is what we present to the board,” said Mr. Lewis.

“So, we’re just adding and adding?” asked Dr. Statler.

“I, for one, am not in favor and will not be in favor of accepting anyone at any of our schools that are already over capacity,” board member Leolga Wright said. “I know we have to make provisions for those that are in the district that are in that area. But we don’t have to make provisions for them that are in the southern part of the district that want to come to the northern part of the district.”

Dr. Bradley Layfield, principal at SCHS, said a number of students are seeking school choice enrollment into Sussex Central for its International Baccalaureate program.

“It’s kind of a double-edged sword. Our IB we are looking to grow. We are looking to build it. Obviously, the school capacity is exceeded at this time. But we have very small classrooms in our IB and are looking to grow that program,” said Dr. Layfield. “As a school, we have far greater than 1,500 (students). Once I utilize capacity as a way to say ‘no’ to any student it shuts the doors to anyone who can come in to build our IB program. I do deny students. We scrutinize discipline referrals, attendance records. I have not denied students based on capacity knowing that the great number of students that come to us new and out of district are applying for our IB program, which is our flagship program that we are trying to build.”

“So, I guess my question is: At what point in time are we going to stop being overcrowded because of a program within the school? That’s a way to get into the door,” said Ms. Wright. “We’ve got people that are transferring here because of sports. Well, I’m sorry but education comes before that. Our obligation is education in the beginning and everything else follows after that, in my personal opinion.”

On March 2, Indian River School District voters in a record-setting turnout approved the district’s follow-up $7.35 million current expense referendum that supports enrollment growth, school safety and student services. The first referendum in November 2016 was defeated by a narrow margin.

The district’s total official enrollment was 10,467 as of Sept. 30, 2016. However, actual enrollment grew by nearly 300 students since the state’s annual unit count, pushing the total above 10,700. District enrollment is projected to surpass 11,000 by next year.

Eight of the 43 choice applications recommended for approval were from Georgetown Kindergarten Center.

“We have eight students on the list currently for kindergarten,” said Georgetown Kindergarten Center Principal Dr. Janet Hickman. “At this point we are not over capacity. Our capacity is 285 students. As of today (June 19), we’re at 217 students registered for kindergarten.”

School board member Jim Hudson asked if the eight families have been personally informed that being accepted by choice at Georgetown Kindergarten Center carries no guarantee of acceptance at Georgetown Elementary or North Georgetown Elementary.

Dr. Hickman said she had been in contact with six of eight families. “They are all families that are looking for daycare, or have had their children in daycare since they were infants,” Dr. Hickman said. “My main talking point is this is a one-year only, that there are large capacity issues in both Georgetown (Elementary) and North Georgetown (Elementary). Because if you are accepted for kindergarten doesn’t mean you will be accepted for first grade. It could very well be a one-and-done situation.”

“I’d like to make a comment that we are not a daycare,” said Mr. Fritz. “I understand what you are saying but I made provisions for my daughter when she went to kindergarten and elementary. We need to be extremely careful when we are accepting kids from other school districts and making ourselves even more overcrowded … and the citizens in our district have to pay the tax bill to build buildings.”

“With the budget cuts, I am trying keep my staff. I want to get to my capacity,” Dr. Hickman told the board.

“I am in favor of a lot of our buildings not being at capacity,” said Mr. Fritz. “I don’t think it has to be a goal to fill the building to capacity.”

Mr. Fritz questioned choice applications at East Millsboro Elementary, whose enrollment is over capacity. Three of five applications for Spanish Immersion were recommended for rejection due to capacity.

“Why accept two and not the other three?” asked Mr. Fritz.

East Millsboro Elementary Principal Kelly Dorman explained that when applications were turned in she accepted the first two, which at the time were under the 52-application umbrella. “The first 52 applications that came in I accepted. Of those 52, 43 have accepted and returned their contract. I am waiting for nine.” Those recommended for rejection were placed on a waiting list, Ms. Dorman said.

When considering school choice priority preference as required by the state is given to:

  1. Returning students who continue to meet the requirements for the program or school;
  2. Students who meet the requirements for the program or school and who seek to attend based upon the residence of the student’s parent within the designated feeder pattern, if any, for the school; and
  3. Siblings of students already enrolled in the school who will be returning to the school for the following academic year. Priority may be given to siblings of students who live in the district over siblings of students who do not live in the district.

A receiving district may next give priority to students who have designated the program or school as a first, second, or third choice; to students who live within the district; and to children of school employees; as long as they meet the criteria of the program or school.

“So, the blanket sibling in or out of the district trumps an employee. That is dictated to us by the state guidelines,” asked board member Rodney Layfield.

“That is correct,” Mr. Lewis said.

“I disagree with the state. I value our employees,” said Rodney Layfield.

At Mr. Lewis’ suggestion, the school board voted to table the school choice agenda item.

“I think they are going to look at this a little more closely. There is absolutely concern about the overcrowding in the district,” said Mr. Hudson. “But school choice is so complicated because of all of the rules and all of that. It just generates a lot of questions. So, we’re trying to be cautious.”

News Editor Glenn Rolfe can be reached at grolfe@newszap.com

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