By: Seth Kinker, firstname.lastname@example.org
Last week the Chelsea Board of Education voted 6-1 to open the Chelsea School District (CSD) to limited school of choice for the 2018/19 school year.
In the recommendation made to the board, the language includes a cap of 25 non-resident students for the 18/19 school year with a reevaluation of school of choice each year depending on space and program availability. Along with the 25-student cap, there is a five percent cap on non-resident students in the CSD based on the annual student fall count.
Although not a new item for the CSD, Board President Anne Mann told The Sun Times that school of choice has been a topic of discussion for the past ten years (Mann has served on the board in some capacity for 13 years), she felt the topic had gained traction once again when two new board members were elected, and Julie Helber was hired in 2016 as Superintendent to replace the outgoing Andy Ingall, who accepted a position in another district.
Chelsea was the only district not offering school of choice in the state of Michigan, except for some upper peninsula rural districts where school of choice wasn’t feasible. When Helber began gathering information last year, she reported that 60% of Michigan school districts participated in school of choice. All other districts in Washtenaw County accept school of choice students.
Before the Board voted, Mann thanked those in attendance for giving their input. She stated that the discussion that has been had, whether for or against, is part of what makes the community of Chelsea what it is.
The decision was made on Monday, Jun. 25 with board member Tammy Lehman being the lone dissenting vote.
During the meeting, Lehman said that she wasn’t for or against school of choice. She talked about polls she had done on social media during the week, as well as emails and calls she had received leading up to the board meeting and from her polls she learned that 55 percent of those who responded were against school of choice, she stated that the community hadn’t heard enough discussion or had enough public input and that as a result of the board not doing a good enough job of informing voters, she would be voting against school of choice.
Trustee Shawn Quilter talked during the meeting about the sense of community Chelsea had, earlier in the month he had expressed his thoughts in a published letter to the editor to The Sun Times.
“I believe a limited School of Choice policy, one that will allow the district to better manage enrollments and access additional revenue from the state, is essential to maintain the quality and scope of CSD educational programs. If we ask Dr. Helber to implement a limited policy, one that is carefully managed, the benefits will outweigh the costs. I believe CSD can have a School of Choice policy that maintains a strong focus on the Chelsea community, and its traditions of excellence, while addressing the financial realities of public school funding. I want my sons (Ryan and Finn) to have wonderful Chelsea school experiences like I did. To that end, I will support a policy that provides these opportunities without compromising the core values and practices that make Chelsea School District great.”
Trustee Kristin van Reesema talked about improving the district across the board, asking where they could be better and how early literacy could help mitigate that gap.
In May, Helber made a formal presentation to the board discussing enrollment and school of choice. She went over the State Foundation Allowance, the main source of revenue for schools, and how it pertained to enrollment.
The per-pupil allowance for Chelsea had reached a high in the 2009-10 school year of $7,650 per student, before decreasing by 6.17% to $7,470 per student in 2011-12. The allowance has increased every year since 2013 and was back to a high in 2017 at $7,664.
Enrollment fluctuates each year, but from 2008 to last year, enrollment in the CSD has fallen by 197 students.
Each student lost or gained, gives or takes $7,664 to the district. In 2016-17 the Chelsea School District was down 55 students after projecting being down only 20, this resulted in an unexpected loss of $268,240.
In 2017 – the 197 student loss totaled a revenue loss of $1,509,808.
In the week leading up to the Jun. 25 decision, Helber continued to field calls and emails from the board as well as members of the community who reached out directly to her. Helber said that despite the increase in communication leading up to the vote, there were still some misconceptions floating around that she hoped to have clarified.
“One, a misnomer, and kind of frankly bothers me, is the assumption of the kind of student we would get with school of choice,” said Helber. “And because I am of the mindset that I’m an educator, I want all kids to have opportunity and to be able to learn. That cuts me a little bit because I don’t think we can make assumptions about who’s going to apply and what their specific circumstance or situation will be. I think some of that is bred out of fear and I’m not sure where that comes from. I think that there are some students in surrounding areas that need programs and offerings that their school district may not be able to provide and by offering them an opportunity in our school district I think that’s a wonderful contribution to the education of our youth and the well-being of our kids. I have a hard time with making the assumption of the type of student we would have here, and I look at it more from the side of what kind of opportunity we could provide to kids that they wouldn’t have otherwise had.”
Another misconception Helber had addressed was in regard to why students were leaving Chelsea schools.
“There’s this perception that we have kids coming, not liking it and leaving, that is just untrue. We may have a handful where what we can provide doesn’t suit them,” said Helber. “Most of the time folks that choose elsewhere don’t ever come here, they don’t ever attend Chelsea schools. The only reason we know they’re somewhere else is because they live in Chelsea and they’re in another district and that unique identification code follows them. We don’t know who those people are, I don’t have a list of the names of those students that aren’t here.”
Although there are other ways to generate revenue – foreign exchange; Young 5’s; alternative education, facility rental, and online course options being some of them, school of choice is the only option that makes back money in any sort of volume that would allow the district some financial flexibility.
“The district has done an excellent job in being able to protect our programming and our students from feeling any sort of effect from a lack of funding from the state,” speculated Helber. “Where we see it more prevalent is with staff members across the district who has taken pay cuts. We have some staff members who are on a pay scale from 2011.”
Helber went on to say that CSD has a fund balance that currently places it as a healthy financial district, but that sacrifices have been made to keep it that way. Even now, there are some staff within the administration that are wearing multiple hats.
If they were free to focus on sole areas of their responsibilities, Helber said, the benefits would be far reaching. She mentioned things that they’ve been able to do, like offering athletics without pay to play, along with things she wants to do in the future.
“I want to create some STEM programming; I want to bring some programming into the district that exposes our students, at all levels, to science, technology, engineering, and math in a very rich way. I can’t do that under my current structure, I can’t. There’s always room for improvement everywhere across the system. “You’re more limited when you don’t have the resources to back it.” Helber told The Sun Times before the vote.
With the decision passing and the parameters from the recommendation, the district would open an “at least one” scenario for each grade, K-12, as they continue to monitor enrollment levels.
Second grade, for example, might have room for seven students but Helber said that they may not have seven second grade students apply. If more than the number of slots allotted per grade is requested, there is an open lottery system in place. The families would come in and there would be a drawing to determine would who get the registration paperwork.
Before that, the families will have to register and obtain documentation from their home district they there are no disciplinary issues, which the CSD will vet before putting eligible families in the open lottery system.
With the decision passing, the board has many responsibilities as it gears up for school of choice.
Applications must be decided upon by the first week of August. Helber said that ideally, applications would be taken by the end of July so the last week in July and first two weeks in August would be open for applications, giving them time to do a drawing if necessary and get everyone registered before the school year.
Even with the cap, Helber said that there may not be a high turnout in the first year.
“The thing of it is, is that unless people are really following this, really understand, and have been wanting to come here, we may not see very many people come in,” said Helber early last week. “Most people have their plans set already, most schools districts open their windows towards the end of the school year and so most people have things set. I can’t say that we’ll see people rushing our doors, I just don’t know. This is the first year of it if it happens, we’ll see… we’ll see.”