Mutiny Over a Bounty: Brief Enrollments Cause a Flap
A tiny district in the Rocky Mountains high plains that offered a bounty to lure home-schooled students is headed for a showdown with the Colorado education department over the amount of state aid it deserves for student enrollment.
Officials with the Sargent school district in Monte Vista, about 240 miles southwest of Denver, offered $600 to home school parents for each one of their children they sent to one of the district's three schools for three days last fall.
Those three days were part of an 11-day window when enrollment counts were used to determine how much state funding the district would receive. Thirty-six home-schooled students and their families took advantage of the offer, district officials said.
"We were offering them an opportunity to test- drive the district," said Timothy D. Snyder, the superintendent of the 400- student district, which was formed in the early 1900s by consolidating seven independent, one-room schoolhouses. "They were invited to enroll permanently."
State education department officials, who initially OK'd the plan, have since done an about-face and are refusing to pay the Sargent district the roughly $40,000 it says it is owed for the additional head count. The district, however, has already paid $21,600 to the parents of the home- schooled students.
Vody Herrmann, the director of public school finance for the Colorado education department, acknowledges that an auditor may have initially told Sargent school officials that it could count the home schoolers toward its official enrollment tally.
But Ms. Herrmann maintains that the auditor was confused and believed Mr. Snyder, who also serves as the director of the Colorado Online School Consortium, was asking about online students. "There was confusion because there were various conversations going on," she said.
National experts say they are surprised by the Sargent district's plan to count home- schooled students. But they said the case illustrates how crucial enrollment counts are to school districts and how the lines between students who should be and who should not be counted are being blurred.
"I have heard of many different things being used to entice home school and private school parents to come in and have their students register at the public school," said Mike P. Griffith, a policy analyst and school finance expert with the Denver-based Education Commission of the States.
"Districts often promote things like being able to participate in varsity sports, after-school activities, field trips, and other extracurricular activities," he said. "But offering them actual cash? I've never heard of that before."
"This same question comes up with distance learning," said Kathy Christie, a vice president for the ECS's clearinghouse. "A lot of districts are trying to beef up their numbers with online and distance education students.
"The question is what is the minimum amount of contact time you need with these students to count them for state-funding purposes," she said. "This is a growing issue and one that I think legislators all over the country are going to have to address."
Colorado has an estimated 9,000 home- schooled students. If districts were allowed to enroll those students temporarily and count them for state-funding purposes, Ms. Herrmann said, Colorado taxpayers would have to pay an additional $50 million.
David vs. Goliath?
After hearing about the Sargent district's plan to nab extra state funding, several other districts started calling the education department to see if they could take the same action, Ms. Herrmann said. She later sent an e-mail to all districts advising against it.
"I am not opposed to any school district getting what is rightfully theirs," she said. "But I want all school districts to have the same opportunity, and I want it to be fair across the state. I don't want one district taking advantage or getting something that other districts don't."
Ms. Herrmann said she made her decision to deny the Sargent district the extra aid based on an unofficial opinion from the state attorney general. The education department last week requested an official opinion.
Meanwhile, Sargent district officials, who have cast the conflict as a David-vs.-Goliath situation, have appealed the denial to Colorado Commissioner of Education William J. Moloney and have requested a hearing to make their case to the state board of education.
"It is a fact of life that rural schools are frequently trod upon by more politically powerful interests," Superintendent Snyder said. "Even if we don't recoup the money, we still consider this to be a worthwhile investment because we've accomplished what we set out to do: Open our doors to home school parents."
Vol. 21, Issue 19, Page 3