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Eased transfer rule worries school officials

With only a few months left for school districts to decide whether to allow transfer students for the next school year, local school boards are considering the possible impacts of Oregon's new open-enrollment law.

The new legislation grants students the right to transfer to any school, inside or outside their home district, provided there's room and the target district has agreed to allow incoming transfers.

The Medford School Board is studying the new law and hopes to keep the public informed about its potential effects, said Paulie Brading, board chairwoman.

"We're gearing up as a board to communicate out to families," said Brading. "I think we need to move very quickly, because there is a rumor mill about this."

District school boards must decide by March 1 whether to allow transfers for the upcoming year.

Brading said the board may decide to have a series of public meetings, but first it plans to talk with local legislators about the consequences of the new law.

Brading and two other board members will meet with state Rep. Sal Esquivel, R-Medford, state Rep. Peter Buckley, D-Ashland, and state Sen. Alan Bates, D-Medford, on Dec. 8.

Brading said while she followed lawmakers' discussions during the legislative session last June, she saw that the open-enrollment law was passed late in the session, with a handful of other education reform bills.

"Some folks in the state felt that it was a rush job," said Brading. "There was some real anger."

Brading said she believes in the importance of legislators meeting with local school boards.

"We needed to have a face-to-face discussion on the unintended and intended consequences of this," said Brading.

In a board meeting Nov. 7, the board discussed the law's creation, which stemmed from one Portland-area parent who was upset over her son's home district denying her request to transfer him out.

Beth Cooke attempted to have her son with "sensory problems" transfer to a district with smaller schools. When his home district said no, Cooke enrolled her son in a private school and lobbied legislators for open enrollment.

While Medford board members agreed transfers are sometimes appropriate, some school officials fear the all-encompassing law could create chaos. They worry about how a large number of student transfers would affect staffing and funding at individual schools.

How things play out in the Medford School District may vary greatly from other districts, said Jeff Thomas, board vice-chairman.

"We have to make the right decision for our district," Thomas said.

Districts that decide to allow incoming transfers must give first priority to students already within their district.

For this school year, Medford approved 102 high-school and middle-school outbound transfers versus 77 inbound transfers. At the same time, there were 186 transfers within the district.

Districts will be allowed to choose how many students are allowed into the district, up to 3 percent of their total enrollment.

In Ashland, district officials are more optimistic about the new law, seeing it as a possible fix for years of declining enrollment.

"I think this will be a positive thing for the district," said Samuel Bogdanove, district student services director.

Bogdanove said district enrollment has steadily declined from roughly 3,100 students in 2001 to about 2,800 now, mostly because of real estate costs and people moving out of the area.

The Ashland School Board has appointed an inter-district transfer policy committee to study the new legislation.

Reach reporter Teresa Ristow at 541-776-4459 or tristow@mailtribune.com.