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Student transfer law doesn't pass scrutiny

Local school districts are limiting student transfers in or out of the district in response to new legislation that prohibits them from considering requests on a case-by-case basis.

"We're basically closing the borders," said Medford schools Superintendent Phil Long.

House Bill 4007, which passed earlier this year with overwhelming bipartisan support, was designed to answer concerns about districts not approving transfer requests from students with special needs who may require costly extra support in school.

State Rep. Peter Buckley, D-Ashland, said the new bill prevents districts from "cherry picking" to avoid taking on the responsibility of a special education or problem student from a neighboring district.

"This is us trying our best to make it a level playing field so one family doesn't have an advantage over another family," he said, adding that no concerns were raised about how districts in Southern Oregon were handling transfers.

Buckley and Rep. Mike McLane, R-Powell Butte, both said the bill was attractive because it also allowed students that moved out of a district to remain with that district if they chose to.

Under the new law, districts can decide not to admit any transfer students, admit every transfer student or impose a cap on transfers. These caps may be determined by grade level, school, staffing, budget and enrollment projections.

But school officials may not ask why a student wants to transfer in or out of the district or about the student's income level, language proficiency, athletic ability, academic records, individualized education plan or other background information.

"Previously, the interdistrict transfer form had a place for you to explain your circumstances," said Mike Meunier, director of human resources for Central Point schools. "Now, we can only ask for five pieces of information: name, contact information, date of birth, grade and whether they have been expelled."

Over the years, local districts have developed an effective, interdistrict transfer policy, said Eagle Point schools Superintendent Cynda Rickert.

Students wishing to transfer to a neighboring district would simply ask to be released from their home district and then apply to attend a receiving district, she explained.

"But that policy is long gone," she said. "Conceptually, I'm sure (HB 4007) sounded great, but what does it mean operationally? That's where the disconnect is."

Now districts must amend their policies so that a student's individual circumstances don't factor into the equation.

The Medford School Board approved a resolution at its June 2 meeting that would grandfather in the district's 300 current, non-resident transfer students. These students' siblings — if born before Sept. 1, 2009 — also would be allowed to transfer into the district, as well as students whose "health, welfare and safety" were at risk.

But all other transfers in or out of the district would be barred, except for students transferring into Ruch School, said board member Kim Wallan. (Medford students also would be allowed to transfer into the Ashland School District because of that district's open enrollment policy.)

"People wanting in will probably be really frustrated but that's the consequence of a pretty poorly constructed legislation," said Long.

In the past, elementary students have transferred into the Medford School District to attend a daycare in the area, to be closer to their parents' work, for a specific education program or because of the school's reputation, said Julie Evans, director of elementary education.

School officials would consider a student's request to transfer if the family was relocating, if the student was the son or daughter of a district employee, or if there were "significant circumstances ... which would be relieved by a change in attendance area."

Students couldn't transfer just because they wanted to be at the same school as a friend, because they preferred the athletic and extracurricular programs of a particular school, or because of the distance to and from school.

Last year, the district approved 64 percent of the requests from outgoing secondary students and 75 percent of the requests from incoming secondary students, said Todd Bloomquist, director of secondary education.

Now the Medford district can't take any of these unique situations into account in the decision-making process.

"Under the new law, we can't ask if the student is taking remedial or advanced courses, whether they are involved in athletics, whether they need second language support, if they have a unique disability that we don't have the programs to support, or whether they have behavioral issues," Long said.

Wallan lamented that now a teen mother in a neighboring district won't be able to transfer to North Medford High School, which hosts the only teen parent program in Jackson County.

Currently, Wallan and board members Sally Killen and Marlene Yesquen are reviewing the proposed policy to present to the rest of the board at its June 30 meeting.

The Phoenix-Talent School District also honored its existing transfer students and, next year, will open up each grade level to an additional five transfer students. If more than five applications come in, the district will hold a lottery to determine which students get to fill those seats, said Superintendent Teresa Sayre.

"We looked at each grade level and came up with a number that we were comfortable with in terms of accepting new students," Sayre said.

Currently, about 2,700 students are enrolled in the district, and of those, about 130 are non-resident students. And between 70 and 80 resident students are attending school in a neighboring district.

Sayre said that under the old policy she could talk to the families who wanted to transfer to another district and find out why they were leaving.

"We would chat, and maybe they would take a tour of the school, and the majority of the time, they would be impressed and decide to stay," she said.

However, families of current transfer students will be happy to know that they no longer have to fill out a transfer request form every year, she said.

"Our board has decided that once a student is accepted they can remain through the 12th grade," Sayre said.

Last year, 140 students within the Central Point School District transferred to another district, while 187 transferred in. Those students will be grandfathered in, Meunier said.

"Our board has set the limit for the number of transfers out of the district at 25," he said. "We'll still accept incoming transfers."

The transfers out will be determined on a rolling, not a lottery, basis.

Meunier said many Central Point kids transfer to Medford where there are more childcare options for parents, and some students in neighboring districts transfer to Central Point for opportunities such as Future Farmers of America.

"Previously, districts had a lot of latitude to look at individual circumstances, but this (House bill) eliminated our ability to work with families," he said.

Samuel Bogdanove, Ashland's director of student services, thinks there will be fewer interdistrict transfers as a result of the new law.

In Ashland, non-resident students have two ways of transferring into the district. Families can apply without the permission of their home district during an open enrollment period (March 1 to April 1). Or they can opt to follow the traditional process of getting permission from their home district and submitting an application to Ashland.

"If we get a higher number of applications than we have space for, we choose by a lottery process," Bogdanove said.

The Ashland School Board will review the final draft of the new interdistrict policy at its next meeting.

"The recommendation is that we want to continue our practice of allowing students in so long as we don't exceed our class sizes," Bogdanove said. "We don't have plans to keep kids from going to other districts right now, simply because we believe in family choice."

HB 4007 was passed unanimously both by the House and Senate. Rep. Dennis Richardson, R-Central Point, was officially excused from the session and was one of three representatives who did not participate in the vote.

"This is an example of legislation moving ahead on something without recognizing the unintended impact," Long said.

Reach education reporter Teresa Thomas at 541-776-4497 or tthomas@mailtribune.com. Follow her at www.twitter.com/teresathomas_mt.