July 05, 2006

Open Enrollment Raises Questions

Sagaponack School's decision to institute a policy of open enrollment to combat a declining student population has put pressure on neighboring schools with similarly small student populations. Under the new plan students from outside the Sagaponack district can attend the school for $2500 in tuition; according to Lee Ellwood, the superintendent of the Sagaponack Common School District, the policy was instituted because of a "need for more students," he said. "That's basically it."

Dominic Annacone, the superintendent of the Wainscott Common School District and the author of The Independent's Eye On Education column, called Sagaponack's new policy "not very neighborly," and suggested open enrollment could hurt small schools such as Wainscott, which currently has 12 students. "Do you save your school at the expense of another school?" he asked.

"That's not our purpose to rob students from other schools," Ellwood said, adding potential inter-district conflicts would be addressed with one-on-one meetings with parents.

Annacone said beginning in the 1970s there was an unwritten agreement between local schools that they would not accept students from neighboring districts on a tuition basis. In areas where a number of small schools — Wainscott, Sagaponack, and Bridgehampton — are close together, such a policy is detrimental, Annacone said, adding, "I'm not sure this is something public schools should do."

"I can certainly foresee that it could have an impact on neighboring districts," said Dr. Dianne Youngblood, the superintendent of Bridgehampton School District. While most schools have policies that allow students from outside the district to attend the school, the tuition rates are generally much higher, she said. "This would really go against the grain in that respect."

But, Youngblood added, schools with budgets in the millions of dollars have to have a business mentality. "It becomes the task of each district to determine how to spend wisely and ensure they have a diverse group of students," she said, adding she was not upset by Sagaponack's policy.

One school with an active open enrollment policy is the Sag Harbor School District, which currently has three students from outside the district who are paying $16,000 in tuition, an amount that will rise to $19,560 for elementary students and $17,911 for the 2006-2007 school year. Kathryn Holden, the district's superintendent said students are accepted if the district deems it "in their best interest." Because there are so few open enrollment students, the effect on other schools is small, Holden said. "If we had students in large numbers, it would be detrimental" to other districts, she added.

Critics have argued accepting students from outside the school district will put a burden on the taxpayers in Sagaponack because the $2500 tuition is far lower than the average cost per student within the district. Ellwood said while the issue of the potential burden on the taxpayers had been raised, the feedback he had received had been generally favorable. "Basically, the community wants to keep the school functioning," he said.

The first through fourth grades at the Sagaponack School had 12 students enrolled for the 2005-2006 school year and has seven students committed for next year, according to Elwood. While no students from outside the district have yet committed to Sagaponack, "We've had people express interest," Ellwood said.

The possibility of a merger between Wainscott and Sagaponack has been talked about "briefly," said Elwood, adding it was "too premature to make any predictions."

"That's really a school board issue," Annacone said. There had been "no formal presentation, or even informal as far as I am concerned" with regard to a merger, he added. Many districts are reluctant to give up the control over educational decisions, making a merger more difficult, Annacone explained.

"Our population is problematic just as Sagaponack's is. If everybody else is just going to ignore not taking students on a tuition basis from another district then we're going to do the same thing," Annacone said. "I guess it is going to become a competitive, tuition-raiding market."

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