Wednesday night, the Board of Education will vote on a controversial shift in district policy that would reduce the number of students it allows into the school system from outside Berkeley on “inter-district permits.”
The item under consideration is Board Policy 5117, which lays out general guidance on inter-district permits. If approved, the policy would make school capacity the top consideration in determining whether to accept a transfer student.
At its Jan. 23 meeting, the board approved a $50,000 contract with California Financial Services, which will determine the capacity of each school in the district.
The policy change would affect students from neighboring communities attempting to enter the system for the first time and those already in the system on inter-district permits, who are looking to move from elementary school to middle school, or from middle school to high school.
Board members say they support the policy change to address overcrowding concerns, particularly at Berkeley High School, which currently enrolls 3,055 students, including 239 inter-district transfers.
“It’s a crowded campus, anyway you look at it,” said board member John Selawsky.
But board and community members have raised several concerns about the proposed policy shift.
Selawsky and fellow board member Terry Doran, while generally supportive of the change, argue that middle school students currently on inter-district permits, who may be expecting to attend Berkeley High School, should be exempt from the new policy.
Others have raised concerns about the fiscal impact of the change and debated its possible effect on student safety.
Currently, 568 students, or six percent of the total, are in the Berkeley schools on permits – 202 on the elementary school level, 127 in middle school and 239 at Berkeley High School. The district admits students for a variety of reasons, from accommodating the children of district employees, to winning more state funding, which is allocated on a per-pupil basis.
The board will not consider the actual details of the policy, the administrative regulations that will guide its implementation, for several weeks. But those details, which could include the exemption proposed by Selawsky and Doran, are likely to come up for debate Wednesday night.
“I believe we do have an implicit commitment to students we’ve let into our middle schools to (go to) the high school,” said Doran.
Doran said he was particularly concerned about eighth graders, who may not have time, at this point in the year, to make alternative arrangements. Selawsky echoed Doran, and said he would seek to extend the exemption to current seventh-graders as well.
Shirley Issel, president of the board, said it would be painful to deny transfer students access to the high school. “There are so many terrific kids here on permits...and it would be a tremendous loss to lose them,” she said.
But, Issel said she would not support the exemption for current eighth graders. “I have to be focused first on our obligations to Berkeley residents and their kids,” she said, arguing that the overcrowding issue needs immediate attention.
Issel added that she does not believe that middle school parents, with children on inter-district permits, are expecting their kids to be admitted to the high school.
“I think people understand there’s going to be annual review,” she said.
But, several parents reached by the Daily Planet said the district has always sent the message that a student, once in the system, could expect to stay in that system through high school, barring any significant behavioral problems.
“We assumed they would get in because we were told they would get in,” said Earl Thomas, a Kensington resident, discussing his two children, who moved from King Middle School to BHS.
Thomas said the current crop of eighth graders should be allowed to attend BHS.
Another issue that surfaces around inter-district permits is student safety. Laura Menard, a BHS parent who is active on safety issues, says there is a perception in the community that students from outside the district, whether here on a permit, or using a false Berkeley address, are responsible for some of the violence at the schools. But, as Menard notes, the district has not collected any data on the topic.
“That’s been batted around for awhile,” said Selawsky, referring to the perception that students from outside the district have caused trouble at the schools, “but we don’t have the information.”
Selawsky said he suspects that students from Berkeley are responsible for some of the violence.
Another issue is the fiscal impact of the policy. Historically, the district has welcomed students on inter-district permits because the state provides funding on a per pupil basis. But, Superintendent Michele Lawrence says she believes that the cost of educating a high school student may outweigh the state funds that student brings to the district.
The district has not yet conducted a fiscal analysis to buttress Lawrence’s theory.