Costly change: Lee Schools discuss eliminating school choice

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— Despite long bus rides and transportation costs, Lee County Public School’s won’t be changing its school choice system anytime soon.

The Lee County School Board met Tuesday afternoon to discuss the possibility of changing the elementary level of the school system from school choice, where students apply to attend any school in one of three zones in the county, to the more traditional neighborhood boundary system.

Board members thought the change would save the district transportation costs. But Tuesday’s meeting revealed the opposite.

“I had no clue,” said Board Member Jane Kuckel. “I really did think in the long run it would be a cost savings for us.”

Board Chair Thomas Scott said the district buses over 50,000 students each day to schools that are miles from their homes because of school choice. He asked the Board and Superintendent Joseph Burke to devote a special workshop to student assignment options.

“Is it good for them? Is it cost effective? Are our resources better directed elsewhere?” Scott asked.

But by the end of the meeting, it was clear to all board members that eliminating school choice on the elementary level would ultimately add more costs through class size compliance regulations, No Child Left Behind regulations, and costs to maintain balanced enrollment levels.

Mike Smith and Ami Desamours with the Lee schools growth and planning department presented the board with three examples of changes to the current school choice system.

The first example was a complete overhaul, changing the system from the three zones into 48 boundaries to accommodate each elementary school in the district.

The second plan involved restructuring the district into 15 zones and the third plan involved restructuring it into 12 zones.

Smith also asked the board to consider keeping the current school choice system but with slight modifications to it that would be discussed at the next school choice meeting.

“The more you reduce the size of the boundary, the more complicated the outside issues become,” said Desamours.

She said having more boundaries would result in legal ramifications, create higher costs to replicate exceptional student education programs, make it more costly to comply with the No Child Left Behind act, and would require boundary modifications each year to support population changes.

School choice historically goes back to the late 1960s and early 1970s as a way of desegregating the district’s schools. From 1970 to 1995 the district was plagued with annual boundary changes and lengthy bus rides for minorities.

In 1995, the district adopted the school choice program. The program was implemented in 1998 and modified the district into three zones and sub zones within each. This is the same system the district uses today with slight modifications.

With the proposed transportation needs for the elementary boundary system, the district would spend approximately $715,000 more than previous years to transport students. Most of this additional cost comes from grandfathering students into the program. This doesn’t include costs for additional portables, teachers and special program replications.

“I would not agree to take money away from instructional programs and put it into plans such as these unless we could show cost savings,” said Kuckel.

The Board recommended conducting a survey to determine how parents and students feel about student assignment and intends to revisit the issue in a special meeting again in September. Board Members and the district acknowledged that this discussion was just the beginning.

Burke also stated that the district has received an A grade from the state for the past three years. He said that the students are at stake and completely changing the system could have an impact on the student’s academic performance.

“This process is a process worthy of really careful, thorough consideration. The system that we have in place right now is not broken but there are things we can do to improve on it,” Burke said.

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