Though Tennessee state law requires school systems to offer an open enrollment period each year to allow students to apply for admission at out-of-zone schools, Director of Schools Donald Andrews said he plans to bring a plan to the board that would specify schools may not use portable classrooms as part of determining if space is available at the school.
"Some principals are taking them [transfer students] in, even though when you look at the capacity of the school, it's overcrowded," Andrews said. "They're saying, we've got space. My definition is, if we're sitting there with modular units, that's overcrowded."
Andrews told the policy committee of the Cumberland County Board of Education. It would be up to the board to approve such a policy. He is planning to update the board on zoning soon.
"We need to look at situations where we have schools with huts [portable classrooms] and other schools with empty classrooms," Andrews said. "That's not good fiscal management any way you look at it. That's an issue we're going to have to address on zoning. Are we going to hard zone?"
Last year, South Cumberland Elementary had the most students attending from out of zone, with 206, while only 16 students zoned for the school attended other schools out of zone. Stone Elementary had 57 students attending out of zone, with Homestead and North Cumberland each with 47 out-of-zone students. Martin Elementary had 19 out-of-zone students while Brown had 11, Pine View seen and three at Pleasant Hill.
Brown Elementary had the most students attending out of zone, 113, with most of those, 97, attending South Cumberland.
State law now requires a yearly open enrollment period, where parents or guardians may request a child attend a school within the system other than the school the student is zoned for, provided adequate space is available. The committee was discussing the policy to determine if it needed to specify policy 6.206, transfers within a system, serves as the school system's open enrollment policy.
"By law, we have to have an open enrollment period. This is basically our open enrollment, in June. The question is, do we need to call this our 'open enrollment' time and identify it so that there is no confusion?" said Rebecca Wood, assistant director of curriculum, instruction and accountability.
Andrews said each school would have a maximum number of students and, once that number was reached, then, out-of-zone students would not be approved.
"My max is based on the building itself, not the modular units," Andrews said.
There was also a question if June was the appropriate time for holding an open enrollment period. Jon Hall, interim principal of Cumberland County High School, said work will begin in early April on student assignment for the following year and building the master class schedule. He said it would be better to know if additional students would be attending the school in January or February.
There is also the problem of unexpected enrollment increases when school starts in the fall. Wood said as a principal she once enrolled 13 third-grade students in one day. Also, a school may have space available in one grade level, but not others.
"It's rare that it happens," Wood said. "We try to leave ourselves room, but sometimes it happens."
Sandy Brewer, 3rd District representative, said, "If there is overcrowding, that transfer wouldn't be allowed, would it?"
Richard Janeway, 2nd District representative, said state law specified the transfer could not cause an overcrowding at the school, or lead to the need to hire another teacher at the school. In those cases, a transfer would not be allowed.
Andrews said addressing the zoning issues was important to making a case for a building program for the school system to the Cumberland County Commission for zoning.
Josh Stone, 4th District representative, said, "I don't think the county is going to take any building program seriously until we get this issue under control."
Andrews said, "We've got facility needs, but we've got some schools that have space and some schools that do not. I agree the first thing is you get people into the school they're zoned for, period. I stand by that. I'm hard zoned, all the way."
The committee approved changes to the policy to specify the policy will serve as the district's open enrollment policy, and added that application to attend out-of-zone would need to be made each year. Those attending out-of-zone would run the risk of being asked to return to their home school as school enrollment changed from year to year.
Janet Graham, interim 9-12 curriculum supervisor, related that many parents returned their children to their zoned school when she was principal at Stone Elementary.
"It's a real risk, and if you're an athlete, it's scary," Graham said. Student athletes who establish a record at one school lose eligibility to play sports if they transfer schools without a change in address.
The committee also reviewed its policy regarding compulsory attendance ages and a possible conflict with guidance provided by the Tennessee State Board of Education when denying admittance to a student who had reached the age of 18.
School policy states students 18 years of age or older applying for admission to Cumberland County Schools must have their application approved by the principal and director of schools when he or she fails to enroll within 30 days after school officially starts, or he or she has dropped out of school and wants to re-enter school.
A memo from the Tennessee Department of Education notes schools may refuse to enroll 18-year-old students in limited circumstances, but the decision not to enroll must be made by the local board of education. Further confusion is added when the memo states student assignment decisions may be appealed first to the board and then to the court system.
Wood said she had found no other school system with a policy to address the seemingly contradictory information.
"You don't want to have to hold a meeting for every situation like this. In the fall, we get lots of requests," Wood said. "My understanding is everyone else operates pretty much like we do. I don't feel we're doing anything wrong, but I don't want to mislead you when I'm looking at this memo."
Janeway asked Wood to send the memo to the Tennessee School Boards Association for guidance. TSBA provides guidance on school policies.