Millage increase could offer a solution to decades-long ‘force-transfer’ problem

by Aric Mitchell (amitchell@talkbusiness.net) 571 views 

Chris Adamson is an operations manager at SLPT Global Pump Group in Sallisaw, Okla. He lives in Fort Smith and makes the drive to work 45 minutes each day after dropping off his adopted daughter at Bonneville Elementary School.

Adamson’s other daughter goes to Woods Elementary, just as he planned when purchasing his home inside the Woods boundary two years ago.

“I purchased a home in the Woods district for one reason — that’s the school I wanted my kids to go to,” he told the Fort Smith School Board during the citizens’ forum of a meeting on Monday (Aug. 27).

Adamson’s home-buying motivations aren’t unusual. In fact, a 2013 Realtor.com survey of almost 1,000 prospective buyers found three-in-five let school boundaries affect their buying decision and about 21% said they would pay 6-10% above budget to live within certain school boundaries, with another 9% willing to pay 11-20%. Realtor.com also notes that homes in desired districts (9-10 on the GreatSchools’ 10-point scale) are an average of 49% more expensive than the national median and 77% more expensive than homes within the boundaries of lower-ranked districts.

Confident with his purchase, Adamson got his first daughter got into Woods without a hitch. But when he came home from work on the kids’ second day of school this year, he found his younger daughter upset. After a summer of excitement, registering at her new school, and buying all the requested school supplies, Adamson said, “her stuff was packed in a bag, given to her to walk out the school to my wife,” and she was transferred to Bonneville.

“Now my family is being greatly impacted because I have one child at Woods, one going to Bonneville. So, every day now, I’m late to work. It’s an inconvenience because people are not doing the right thing, and it needs to be addressed.”

Particularly frustrating for Adamson is the belief that some students at Woods live within other boundaries.

“Woods was the only Blue Ribbon school in the district last year. Everybody wants to go there, but everybody doesn’t belong there because they don’t live in the area,” he said, adding if the issue is limited space, the “school choice students should be the first ones removed, not people who are living in the district.”

The Fort Smith Public School District (FSPS) shares the frustrations of Adamson and other parents in his situation, according to FSPS Communications Director Zena Featherston-Marshall.

“There’s nothing good about this. But when you’re talking about staffing and space, it’s what has happened for a lot of years,” Featherston-Marshall told Talk Business & Politics. “It’s called class-sizing, or force transfers when we were talking about the millage election. It’s something that’s happened here for a lot of years because the capacity is very tight. It has to do with space and the number of teachers, and it basically comes to us because of the class-size standards in the state of Arkansas.”

Those standards dictate there can be no more than 20 kids per classroom in kindergarten, no more than 25 from grades 1-3, and no more than 28 in grades 4-6. The rule also affects secondary teachers, who can teach a maximum of 150 students across the typical 7-period school day.

“What happens here is their children are enrolled in school and as they come in, they are placed on a list. For a time, they might have to go to a different school. We moved 200-plus students this year, just a few days ago. We try to handle it in the first three days. It hurts. But we try to handle it immediately, so we’re not dragging it out. It’s bad.”

Typical enrollment of a student within their school district requires a utility bill that proves the student is living at a residence within the boundary. But Adamson claimed on Monday he “knew for a fact” there were friends of his eldest daughter who were attending Woods but lived outside of the boundary. Featherston-Marshall didn’t deny that possibility.

“They could be living with someone else. The rumor has always been that they could be using grandma’s address. And there’s always been rampant rumors about kids from Oklahoma coming to Fort Smith. If that happens, we have to take action because that’s flat-out against the law to come across state lines.”

She continued: “People are clever, and they can figure out ways to game the system. But I don’t know of any specific examples of that.”

One thing the district will do during the next “three to five years,” Featherston-Marshall said, is reconfiguring high school grades and adding “ninth grade centers” on the existing Northside and Southside High School campuses. Included as part of the 5.558-millage increase that is expected to raise $120.822 million toward school improvements, the centers will expand capacity at the high schools while placing ninth graders on the same campus as grades 10-12 since ninth grade is considered part of one’s “high school years” anyway. This move will allow each of the junior high schools to group grades 6-8 on one campus, thus opening up more capacity at the elementary schools so children like Adamson’s no longer have to experience the shock of being uprooted after their school year has begun.

But for Adamson and Sparks COO Aimee Arzoumanian — another parent who experienced the force-transfer this year — the district should demand more than a utility bill when vetting the wait-list.

“I think one water bill is insufficient to prove where you live. I think we should consider more than that to validate someone’s home or residence,” Arzoumanian said. “When you have a child who is extremely nervous about a school, they come to the orientation, you buy all their supplies, and then they’re told at the end of the day they didn’t get in — basically, to a child, that’s like saying you’re not good enough.”

Arzoumanian suggested that district administration should ask for more extensive means of verification when building out a school’s wait-list, such as a tax statement that would show the filer’s true number of dependents. Arzoumanian said she was “willing to be a part of any committee to help improve this process.”

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