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Schools of choice: Boom or bust? Debate continues

March 09, 2011 - Brandon Twp.- Two years ago, the school board had a study session about their schools of choice program after multiple complaints from parents who reside in the district.

Now the school board will revisit the issue, at their next meeting set for 6:30 p.m., March 14, at the central district office, 1025 S. Ortonville Road, after opposition has surfaced again.

"I am going to directly challenge the falsehoods about schools of choice that are out there," said Superintendent Lorrie McMahon.

This time, the anti-schools of choice movement appears to be led by Jim Hebb and Brian Cummings, two township residents who spoke out a few months ago at a school board meeting, voicing their support for eliminating schools of choice here. The pair have also created a website—— and most recently, they spoke at the March 7 township board meeting.

"We have too many schools of choice students— 20 percent of our high school kids don't live here," said Hebb in addressing the board. "We have empty homes, there is no reason to stay. We'll leave more homes vacant if we continue schools of choice."

Cummings acknowledged that the township board doesn't have the power to change school board decisions, but said it is a political issue that affects the community.

"If (schools of choice students and parents) get the benefit of the community, but don't have to move here, why would they?" Cummings asked. "If we made it so they have to live in our community, there would be no vacant homes. Sixty percent of the district employees don't live here... There is no advantage of schools of choice to Brandon, Groveland, or Ortonville. The only advantage is to keep district employees employed. We're losing our own kids (in the district). Their answer is to import students. It's affecting your property values."

Schools of choice allows students who live outside the Brandon School District boundaries to attend school here. The district currently has 392 students (12 percent of the entire student body of 3,286) who reside in other school districts. The breakdown of where they come from is as follows: Bentley, 1; Clarkston, 16; Clawson, 1; Davison, 4; Goodrich, 19; Grand Blanc, 3; Holly, 51; Lake Orion, 3; Lapeer, 28; Oxford, 52; Pontiac, 203; and Waterford, 11.

The district receives $7,316 in per-pupil funding from the state, meaning the 392 schools of choice students also bring $2,867,872 in funding to the district.

McMahon said that nearly $3 million equates to the salaries of roughly 42 teachers, but if schools of choice were eliminated here, only seven teachers could be laid off and keep the same class sizes as now, due to the distribution of schools of choice students in kindergarten through 12th grade. Although the district would also save on cost of materials needed, the two areas of reduction (teachers and materials) would at a maximum result in a $1 million savings, leaving the district short $1.8 million that currently goes to maintaining infrastructure for all students in the district.

"Our class sizes without the schools of choice students could very well be larger than they would be with the kids here," said McMahon.

On, an entry from the administrator welcoming visitors to the site says, "We are hoping for more involvement from our community members through this site to help educate the taxpayers of this community and show the pros and cons on School of Choice. Here you will get to know where we are headed in the district. We feel very strongly that change is needed and hope to gain support from all of you."

Under "negatives" about schools of choice, the website claims increased class sizes, taxpayer funded retired teacher pensions, soc parents not supporting local businesses, property values, and low MEAP scores. All are given at least one or two sentences in explanation. The one "positive" listed for schools of choice on the website is "It brings money into our district."

McMahon is looking forward to dispelling misinformation about schools of choice at the board meeting. For example, she said, many taxpayers don't know that paying the school bond is one piece of their school taxes. The other piece is for operating costs and that money goes to the state, which determines how it comes back to the district.

"There is no direct relationship in what they pay for their school operating taxes and what they get here in the district," she said. "The taxes that schools of choice students' parents pay also goes into that pot in Lansing and that also comes back to us."

Bad behavior from soc students is also not an issue, she said, particularly because these students are not accepted if they have a record of problems at their former schools.

McMahon acknowledges there are children who arrive in the district not as academically well-prepared, but said that it is the job of teachers to educate them

Besides the funding, McMahon believes schools of choice students also bring another postive to the district— diversity.

"Schools of choice offers us the opportunity to relate to people who don't have the same background as the rest of us," she said. "We are working in a global society, we need to learn about and appreciate differences."

"I do not understand the motive behind opposing schools of choice... It concerns me that the movement against schools of choice is a bias against other cultures or the world outside of Ortonville."

Susan covers Brandon Township and Ortonville
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