Outside Students Become School Board Issue

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Tuesday October 17, 2006

The question of how to deal with out-of-district students in the Berkeley public schools has become a major issue for school board candidates in this election. 

Although re-registering students when they enter high school level was a solution that had initially been suggested by school board candidate David Baggins, it has been taken up by some of the other candidates as well. 

Three of the five school board candidates who are running for election this year told the Planet that re-enrolling students when they enter Berkeley High School could help enforce the residency requirement for registration in Berkeley public schools. 

“I like to believe that a convergence of factors as well as my candidacy caused many people who already understood that the schools were suffering from the consequences of false registration a chance to speak out,” said Baggins. 

School board director Shirley Issel who is running for re-election this year and supports re-registration, said the school district has taken steps over the last five years to strengthen its Office of Admissions and Attendance. 

Currently, eighth-grade students go directly to Berkeley High from the middle schools without requiring an updated proof of residency. 

Karen Hemphill, a school board candidate who supports re-registration, said the unknown number of falsely registered students made the issue complicated. She cautioned against taking extreme measures to root out out-of-district students. 

“It’s important to find out just what the impact of falsely registered students may be on our schools’ resources before we take extreme measures,” she said. “Random bed checks could harm a child in a lot of ways, including invading his privacy.” 

Baggins, however, feels that if information technology didn’t help the school district to come up with the false addresses, it was important to use home inspection. 

School Board candidate Norma Harrison blamed the district’s problem on the “dysfunctional school system” rather than registration. 

“The alienation of people using school causes disruption and dismay; not the actual home address of the student,” she said.  

School board director Nancy Riddle, running for re-election, did not return repeated calls for comment. 

According to Baggins, issues such as the achievement gap, Measure A and the recent Pacific Legal Foundation lawsuit against the school district were among the factors that made the community take notice of the problem of students in the schools who didn’t belong in the district. 

“Critics of the schools were vocally focused on the achievement gap,” he said. “This seemingly unfixable problem caused many to wonder how BUSD achieved so much more at-risk population than its general public exhibits. Measure A caused many to wonder why the priority of spending in the district is to service out-of-district students and whether passage of long-term extra funding would be interpreted by the schools as an acceptance that BUSD did not intend to fix the broken registration system. The suit against quotas in the schools causes a broad realization that the district is discriminating against residents and taxpayers for the benefit of a substantially falsely registered population.” 

Issel said that although some families registered their children under false pretenses at Berkeley schools, this was becoming more difficult with the tightening of the admission process. 

“New positions have been added to support a more careful registration process, including home visits when necessary to contact parents or verify residence,” Issel said. 

School superintendent Michele Lawrence told the Planet that if the school board voted for re-registration, the issue could be brought up at the board meeting as early as spring. 

“Currently, if we find that a student is studying illegally at a Berkeley school, we put him on a legitimate permit and watch his behavior carefully,” she said. “It’s not a good practice to yank a child away in the middle of the semester. They are returned back to their own school district at what we think is an appropriate time to make that move.”