Source: Sherman Publications

Opponents call for closing door on schools of choice

by Susan Bromley

March 30, 2011

Brandon Twp.- Schools of choice has been in place in the district for 15 years, but has never been reviewed, despite controversy over the program which allows students who reside elsewhere to attend school here.

It’s under review now.

During a school board study session on March 29, Superintendent Lorrie McMahon recommended schools of choice become a yearly discussion.

The district had six schools of choice students in 1996, the year of its inception. The district now has 392 schools of choice students, with the majority (about 200) coming from Pontiac. Other SOC students come from districts including Oxford, Holly, Goodrich, Clarkston, Bentley, Clawson, Davison, Grand Blanc, Lake Orion, Lapeer, and Waterford. McMahon and some school board members (past and present) have defended schools of choice, citing the revenue it brings to the district (roughly $2.9 million) as well as the diversity it brings. Critics have raised concerns about behavior problems from SOC students, lower test scores, and lower property values (people don’t have to live in the district, but can still gain the benefit of the schools).

Approximately 100 people were in attendance at the study session, during which McMahon gave a presentation on schools of choice to answer public concerns, including explanations of the application process, taxes and school funding, and data on test scores and student suspensions.

Some of the points McMahon stressed included:

— Per-pupil funding does not come directly from property tax. “Everyone in Michigan throws their taxes into the pot and Lansing determines what our portion of the pot will be,” she said. “We are not able to tax ourselves for operating costs, only for such things as construction, or technology innovation... Taxes paid by parents of the schools of choice students go into the same pot in Lansing and instead of going to their resident district they come to us. There is no direct relationship between the property tax dollars you pay and the tax dollars that we receive.”

—Schools of choice students do not have more behavior problems than resident students in the district and both are treated the same. “The same portion (4 percent) of schools of choice students have been disciplined to the level of suspension in the past year as the resident students,” McMahon said, and added that unlike some resident students, she has not had expulsion hearings for any SOC students.

—Data analysis of K-8 MEAP scores show that SOC students are scoring equally to resident students on average. SOC students who are new to the district in 9th grade score lower on the social studies MEAP than long-time Brandon students and when tested in 11th grade also score lower than students who have been in Brandon longer than 2.5 years. Long-term SOC students and resident students scored equally on the 9th grade social studies MEAP and SOC students students who enter in 10th, 11th, and 12th grades score about the same as long-term Brandon students. “There is a problem in the high school with test scores that goes beyond the SOC students,” McMahon said. “Elimination of SOC will not fix it. The district needs to identify the real problem and make the necessary changes to raise test scores in the high school.”

ACT scores overall have increased in the last few years, and McMahon noted a recent valedictorian was a schools of choice student.

Because of a growing anti-schools of choice movement that spawned the creation of a website—— and has prompted several parents to voice their concerns at recent school board meetings, McMahon explained at the study session what complete elimination of schools of choice would mean, and also offered less severe alternatives.

If the district decided to eliminate schools of choice in the future, it would have zero effect on the students from out of the district who are already here. Once accepted, schools of choice students are Brandon students by law. Elimination of the schools of choice program would mean a loss of about $482,856 each year due to graduation and no kindergarten entry.

“If we eliminated schools of choice and lost money, there would be lay-offs,” said McMahon. “That can’t be good for the district. There would be more people unemployed and some couldn’t maintain their homes.”

Although $482,856 equates to what it costs the district to employ seven teachers, it doesn’t mean that seven teachers could be laid-off due to the distribution of students throughout the grades. It might mean the lay-off of one teacher, and a 2/3 reduction in the athletic program or elimination of elementary electives or band and vocal teachers, McMahon said.

Elimination of schools of choice in the district would almost certainly mean the closing of Belle Ann Elementary, she added, because of the loss of funding and Belle Ann being the smallest building in the district. Shutting Belle Ann would restructure other buildings— with Oakwood Elementary housing kindergarteners and first graders, about 363 students total, with 15 teachers and class sizes of about 25 students; Harvey Swanson housing second and third grades, 360 students, also about 15 teachers and class sizes of 25; and Brandon Fletcher Intermediate School adding fourth grade to the current fifth and sixth grades there, with 635 students, 22 teachers, and class sizes of 30.

Other options less extreme than complete elimination include detting limits on which grades to accept students, such as kindergarten entry only, or only up to ninth grade. The district could also choose to limit the number of schools of choice students at each grade level, allow September entrance only, or do any combination of the above.

Examining the issue has raised more questions that the board and community needs to consider, McMahon said, including what the impact of SOC is over time, how the loss of students would be handled financially, what the maximum number of out-of-district students is, and how the district should approach SOC families who already have children enrolled and want to enroll younger siblings.

During the public comment portion of the meeting, several audience members spoke, including some out of district parents who support schools of choice and pleaded with board members to keep it, and some district residents who called for the program to be eliminated or reduced.

Some opponents of schools of choice challenged the board to put the issue on the November ballot to let voters decide. Others went a step further and said that enrollment for schools of choice (which has already begun for the fall) should be suspended immediately.

McMahon said that elimination of schools of choice for the 2011-2012 school year is not being considered, nor does she feel a vote on the issue is appropriate, since voters elect school board members to make decisions regarding the district.

School Board President Debbie Schummer said the board is making decisions based on children in the school district, not on adults in the school district.

“It’s essential we have controlled growth and do what is in the best interest of students,” she said. “When growth becomes so much that we know it has a negative impact, we need to look at change. I am a proponent of staying where we are and capping (SOC) at 10 percent of students.”

McMahon said the board will continue to study the issue and gather facts before making a decision that will be best for all students. That decision will not come until the fall, she said, because of the budget taking priority for the remainder of the school year.