Kentucky School Boards Association voices opposition to neighbor - WDRB 41 Louisville News

Kentucky School Boards Association voices opposition to neighborhood schools bill

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Dismissal time at Dunn Elementary School on the first day of school - Aug. 10, 2016. (WDRB News file photo) Dismissal time at Dunn Elementary School on the first day of school - Aug. 10, 2016. (WDRB News file photo)

LOUISVILLE, Ky/ (WDRB) -- The association that represents all of Kentucky's school boards has come out against the controversial “neighborhood schools” bill that is quickly moving through the state legislature.

Two weeks ago, the Kentucky School Boards Association was neutral on its position of House Bill 151 because many in the state education community assumed the bill would affect only Jefferson County, which uses a complicated assignment plan with the goal of keeping school racially and socio-economically diverse, said Brad Hughes, a spokesman for KSBA.

But Hughes said the proposed law “absolutely has the potential to impact other districts” -- basically, any districts with more than one or two schools, such as Shelby, Oldham, Bullitt and Boone counties.

And that has gotten the attention of superintendents who are now contacting lawmakers in the Kentucky Senate -- where the bill is expected to be heard this week -- with their concerns, he said.

The bill, sponsored by state Rep. Kevin Bratcher, a Republican from Fern Creek, allows for certain exceptions, including cases in which the school closest to a child's home has academic or skill prerequisites -- such as a magnet school, or was designated as a traditional school by the local district as of the 2016-17 year. 

It further states that if the number of children living in an attendance area exceeds the capacity of a school, the children residing the shortest travel distance from the school shall be given first priority in assignment and that if that school exceeds the capacity, then the resident student shall enroll in and attend the next closest school to where they reside.

It adds that no child shall be displaced "in order to permit the attendance of another child."

Bratcher told WDRB News on Monday that he is working on a possible amendment to his bill, but could not give specifics. 

Hughes said the bill as its currently written would not prohibit districts from drawing geographic attendance zones to determine which students go to which schools. But at the same time, the bill would mandate that districts prioritize students’ proximity to schools above a myriad of other factors that school boards currently consider when drawing those boundary lines, he said.

“It’s that setting the foundation, that bar that if nothing else, you have got to start with where the child lives before factoring anything else in,” Hughes said. “That is a restriction that doesn’t exist right now.”

Bullitt County Schools Superintendent Keith Davis said Monday he generally believes in neighborhood schools, as they "tend to increase parent involvement and help create community identity."

"Neighborhood schools are what we have in Bullitt County, aside from a few specialized programs," he said.  But, the imposition of the definition of neighborhood schools contemplated in House Bill 151 could - in districts like ours and other “large-but-not-super-large” districts - cause dislocation of long-standing attendance boundaries and even divide neighborhoods."

Hughes acknowledged the possibility that attendance zones could result in districts placing a child in a school other than the one closest to his or her home – even when the closer school would have space for the child. He said it’s unclear how such a conflict would be resolved.

“That is just one of the myriad of questions that are being asked about the ‘What Ifs’ about this thing,” Hughes said.

Oldham County Schools Superintendent Greg Schultz said Monday "it's about balancing the numbers."

"We allow for intra-district transfers in our county," he said. "That allows for student and parent choice and it balances us out pretty well. In some parts of the county, the impacts of HB 151 would be minor, but if you look at Crestwood, we have three elementary schools in a one mile radius. Having to redistrict for these three schools would be extremely difficult."

Schultz says he believes the bill is "an overreach from the state that doesn't account for the nuances of how a district draws school attendance zones."

Davis says he agrees. 

"The complicated issue of setting attendance zones - with its many nuances, wide-ranging effects, and unique geographic and historic considerations - is best left to the school districts and their locally elected boards of education," he said. 

Hughes said families are not likely to be certain about which schools their children would attend – a top goal of the bill – because “it depends on where everybody else is living and where everybody else moves,” and students who live father away from a school are out of luck when it fills up.

In case of a popular school in a district like Jefferson County, the only guarantee might be for those “parents who can open the door and see the school,” Hughes said.

Indeed, House Bill 151 would force big changes, unforeseen consequences for Jefferson County Public Schools.

The bill would upend JCPS’ more-than-40-year-old policy of assigning students to schools to ensure racial diversity.

That policy began in 1975 with a court order to desegregate schools. It continues today under a formula that seeks balance according to the racial, economic and educational achievement characteristics of the areas where students live.

Middle and high school students are guaranteed a spot in the school of their attendance zone, called a "resides" area. But those zones are not necessarily contiguous and often combine students from far-flung areas of the county.

Elementary students, meanwhile, are given a "cluster" of schools from which to choose, but are not guaranteed a spot in the school closest to their home.

HB 151, on the other hand, permits a student to enroll in the school nearest to their home starting with the 2019-20 year. If there are more children opting to go to their closest school than the school can accommodate, then the seats are awarded to those who live closer to the school over those who live father away.

An analysis by the JCPS transportation department shows the wide-ranging consequences of HB 151: only about half of the current high school students, about 38 percent of middle school students and about 34 percent of elementary school students live close enough to their current school that they would have the right to attend it under the proposed law.

Current students would not be forced to change schools because of the new rules. The bill also exempts special schools such as magnets, which have competitive admission; traditional schools, whose seats are awarded by lottery; and alternative schools for children with behavioral issues. It also exempts charter schools, should state lawmakers authorize them in Kentucky.

Because Jefferson County remains largely segregated in housing based on race and incomes, district officials say the policy would greatly reduce diversity in schools.

But beyond that, the bill could shake-up the district’s schools and attendance patterns in ways that are less obvious.

Some schools would be swamped with kids based on proximity, while other schools – even in older, built-out areas – might be candidates for closure or wholesale reinvention because they would have a tiny number of kids to accommodate under HB 151.

Sen. Mike Wilson, the chairman of the Senate Education Committee, could not be reached for comment last week, but a spokesman for the Senate Republicans said Friday that Wilson had not had a chance to review the bill.

But the Senate, which has long been controlled by Republicans, has passed versions of the “neighborhood schools” bill three times in the last decade, according to Senate Majority Caucus Chairman Dan Seum, a Republican from Fairdale.

He added that there is a "very good chance" the bill will pass the Senate again this year.

You can reach WDRB education reporter Toni Konz at 502-585-0838 or @tkonz on Twitter and reporter Chris Otts at 502-585-0822 or @christopherotts on Twitter.

Copyright 2017 WDRB News. All rights reserved. 

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