Some East Iowa parents dislike open enrollment rules

School districts not required to allow other district buses in

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March 31, 2014 | 10:03 pm

All the schools in Martelle closed a while ago.

The high school shut down in 1962 and the elementary school saw its last students in 1990, sending children in this 255-person town eight miles north to Anamosa schools.

But it makes more sense to Martelle resident Kim Sherman to send her three kids to Mount Vernon schools. She owns and operates an office supply business in downtown Mount Vernon, her husband drives through the town during his commute to Cedar Rapids and the distance is about the same either way.

Iowa’s open enrollment law allows Sherman and the parents of about 25 other Martelle students to send their children to any school district they choose, but that same law is also the source of a decades-long dispute over transportation between the two districts,

The Anamosa school board voted in May to close its borders to buses from neighboring school districts, specifically citing Mount Vernon and Monticello schools.

Carol Greta, an attorney with the Iowa Department of Education, confirmed the move is within the school board’s jurisdiction, as inter-district bussing is only permitted by law if both districts come to a mutual agreement. Open enrollment may give parents the power of choice, but with the exception of low-income families, the onus of getting kids to the school of their choosing is still on them.

No incentive

From the school district’s perspective, allowing another district to come into their territory and bus children out actively encourages families to leave. That’s a pricey proposition for a 1,238-student school district, as every full-time student lost takes with him or her $5,883 in state funding.

The board decided not to give parents any incentive to do that, according to Anamosa Superintendent Brian Ney, who said he’s heard few complaints outside the media about the board’s decision.

“If people want to open enroll, they can open enroll.” he said. “We’re trying not to make it easy for other people to send their kids out.”

Open enrollment gives parents more options, but the policy can hurt rural school districts’ finances. Larger urban districts lose a greater number of students, but the overall damage is less. About 928 students enroll out of Cedar Rapids every year, but that’s only about 6 percent of the district’s total population, and is balanced by 388 incoming students.

Anamosa loses a much smaller number, 131 students, but that’s about 11 percent of its enrollment, with 92 students coming in.

Sherman doesn’t see how the board’s move benefits Anamosa or will convince open enrolling families to come back.

“I wish them well, but this is not a way to pursue new students for the district,” she said.

This isn’t the first time the problem has come up. Open enrollment in Iowa is 23 years old, and the dispute over transportation to Mount Vernon from Anamosa is almost as old.

Various compromises have been attempted over the years. Until the recent vote, open enrolling students met at a park in downtown Martelle to be picked up by a Mount Vernon bus, In the past, Sherman said students have needed to travel to a spot outside the Anamosa district on the side of Highway 1, which raised safety concerns.

“If the school district isn’t going to be kind enough to send the kids to a safe place, why would I send them there?” she said.

Randy McCaulley, the Anamosa superintendent from 1993 to 2001 who now lives in Perry, said the dispute has never been personal. Anamosa is simply applying Iowa code.

“It was just the way the law was written,” he said. “Transportation is up to the parents of open enrolled students. It doesn’t entitle them to it.”

Other districts

Anamosa isn’t the only school district keeping Mount Vernon busses out. Despite having a Mount Vernon mailing address, Anita Haeg’s family resides within the the Springville school district. The Haegs wanted to open enroll to Mount Vernon because it is closer and has a better string orchestra program, she said.

Haeg spent almost a decade, starting in the 1990s, petitioning school board members to change their mind on the bussing issue. When that didn’t work, she lobbied lawmakers to change Iowa’s law to prevent districts from blocking outside transportation. She had little success while her children were still young enough to need this bus.

“It was just so arbitrary,” Haeg said. “I tried so hard but there was no way to get them to cooperate on the issue,” she said.

Mount Vernon has maintained a dialogue with its neighbors on transportation over the years, but there’s not much it can do if the a neighbor won’t allow cross-district bussing, said Mount Vernon Superintendent Pam Ewell.

Ewell would ideally like to see the law addressed to add more flexibility for districts, as Iowa has changed since 1989. Families are more mobile and more likely to think beyond their backyard for schooling, she said.

“If you think about someone commuting the length of the Corridor, they might choose along the way to take their child to any number of districts depending on their needs,” she said. “Things have changed. When my kids were young, I didn’t even think about that.”

That flexibility isn’t likely to come soon. Rep. Nate Willems, D-Lisbon, wouldn’t rule out the possibility that open enrollment might be addressed during an upcoming Legislature session, but he doesn’t recall it ever coming open during the last four years.

“My experience has been that virtually everything involving open enrollment is very controversial, both at the local level and when the issue raises its head in Des Moines,” he said.

The Legislature’s lack of interest in revisiting open enrollment means families must continue to come up with their own solutions. Until they can persuade the school board to see their view, Sherman said Martelle parents are meeting to come up with an alternative solution for the upcoming school year. No decisions, but no one has decided to go back to Anamosa.

“I’ve got a senior this year,” said Sherman. “I’m not going to uproot her from Mount Vernon High School because I don’t have a bus coming through the district, I will find a way to get her to the school.”

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