STAMFORD – A controversy over whether teachers’ children should be prioritized for admission to the city’s high-performing inter-district magnet schools has several new twists.
Despite the district’s official policy, teachers are allowed to bypass the magnet school lottery, upsetting city residents who sit on long lists, waiting for a seat.
During a Board of Education meeting last week, however, it was revealed that a number of the coveted seats are empty.
It’s because the two inter-district magnet elementary schools, Strawberry Hill and Rogers International, and one high school, the Academy of Information Technology & Engineering, were built using a certain amount of state funding. In return, the state mandates that no more than 75 percent of the students in each school come from Stamford. The remaining 25 percent must be drawn from surrounding towns.
But Stamford has trouble finding out-of-town students who want to attend. To keep the 75-25 proportion, there must be fewer in-towners if there are fewer out-of-towners.
So, to maintain the ratio, district officials are leaving in-town slots unfilled, and turning Stamford parents away.
“We can’t just backfill seats with in-town students; we don’t have the out-of-town students to balance it,” Lori Rhodes, associate superintendent for school development, said during the board’s Policy Committee meeting. “The most in-town students we can take is 75 percent … and we’ve exhausted our out-of-town list.”
But there is a remedy.
The state grants waivers
A state education official said Friday that a school district that has difficulty meeting the 75-25 requirement may apply for a waiver.
“It must be approved by the (state education) commissioner and the (school district) must be operating pursuant to an approved plan to bring the school into compliance with the residency standard,” said Robin Cecere, Education Director for School Choice for the state Department of Education. “This is all stipulated in statute.”
Cecere said her office “communicate(s) the policy to operators through our enrollment policies … which we send to them and post on the web.”
Rhodes said during the meeting that the district’s hands are tied by state regulations.
“If we go beyond 75 percent of in-town students, we will lose funding,” Rhodes said. “Millions of dollars.”
Connecticut annually reimburses inter-district magnet schools $3,060 for each in-town student and $7,227 for each out-of-town student, according to the statute.
But the state Department of Education “will waive fiscal impacts from residency noncompliance for good cause if the (magnet school) completes and submits an approved compliance plan within the timeframe required,” Cecere said.
According to the statute, the state commissioner “may award a grant to such school for an additional year or years if the commissioner finds it is appropriate to do so.”
Stamford Public Schools spokeswoman Kathleen Steinberg said Tuesday that district officials know about the waiver option and have used it in the past.
The district accepts as many students as possible while adhering to the enrollment ratio, Steinberg said. She did not say how many seats are left open when the ratio isn’t met.
“There are always in-town wait lists, but almost never out-of-town wait lists,” she said.
Attrition is greater among out-of-town students because families “must transport their child to and from school every day,” Steinberg said.
But, without out-of-town wait lists, “we may not be able to fill every in-town vacancy and still maintain the 75/25 ratio. This is why there tends to be a drop in enrollment from year to year in the upper grades,” Steinberg said.
The district “is examining ways to promote greater participation” among out-of-town families, she said.
Difficulty drawing students
Stamford is having trouble finding out-of-town students because it is surrounded by Greenwich, Darien and New Canaan, wealthy towns with highly successful schools. There is little incentive for those parents to send their children to Stamford.
Rhodes said students coming from towns that are farther away would have to battle Interstate 95 and Merritt Parkway traffic.
“About 90 percent of our out-of-town students come from Norwalk,” Rhodes said. “But Norwalk has been making their schools more attractive.”
Emily Morgan, spokeswoman for Norwalk Public Schools, said the city now has six magnet elementary schools with instructional focuses on language; character; college and career readiness; marine science; and visual and performing arts.
“One is also based on the Bank Street and Higher Order Thinking models,” Morgan said.
P-TECH Norwalk is a magnet school that draws students only from Norwalk, Morgan said, and the city offers middle- and high-school magnet programs with themes and career paths similar to those at the elementary level, plus digital communications, culinary, and health care.
Norwalk has an inter-district magnet school of its own, The Center for Global Studies, that draws students from other towns, Morgan said.
During the meeting, Board of Education member Jackie Pioli said Stamford must look beyond Norwalk, because it’s not good practice to leave seats open when Stamford parents are clamoring for them.
“If we can’t fill in-town seats until we get out-of-town seats filled, we have to work on recruitment,” Pioli said.
“We have recruitment efforts,” Rhodes said. “We are not seeing great results from those efforts.”
Stamford parents want seats
Board member Lisa Butler said that, for Stamford parents, getting into the inter-district elementary magnet Rogers International “is like winning the golden ticket.”
“People purchase homes in Shippan because they hope to win that golden ticket” by living in the attendance zone, Butler said.
Since school administrators proposed codifying the practice of allowing teachers to bypass the lottery, “I’ve had people stop me on the street and say, ‘Please fight for this; this is not fair.’ Those voices are not heard,” Butler said.
District data shows that, for the school year ending now, 83 students were seated at Rogers International and 302 were on wait lists. At Strawberry Hill, 96 students were seated and 327 went on wait lists. At AITE, 173 students were seated and 297 were wait-listed.
Rhodes wants the Board of Education, at the request of Superintendent Tamu Lucero, to codify the district’s practice of allowing teachers who work in the inter-district magnet schools to bypass the lottery and enroll their children as a professional courtesy, even though the policy now says teachers who work in a magnet school may bring their children only as space allows.
Rhodes wants the board to agree to rework the order of admission so that the children of teachers are just behind students with siblings attending a magnet school, and students who live in the attendance area.
Without the priority change, Lucero said, teachers’ children will never get into the schools where their parents work because the resident wait-lists are so long. Allowing the practice helps retain teachers in a time of nationwide teacher shortages, Lucero said.
Permission is granted to all teachers who ask for their child to be enrolled in the school where they work, Lucero said during the meeting.
“If you apply for professional courtesy, you get professional courtesy,” the superintendent said. “We let anyone in who wants professional courtesy.”
‘A rule is being broken’
Pioli said the board has to “make the playing field fair for all students.”
“A rule is being broken. We can’t make it right by changing the policy,” Pioli said. “We should offer a seat to any student who was denied.”
She and other board members want the district to consider options.
“I don’t mind professional courtesy,” Pioli said. “I’m saying can we have a cap? Charge tuition? I’m looking for fairness.”
In Greenwich, Board of Education employees – whether they live in the town or not – who want to enroll a child in a certain school, magnet or non-magnet, will pay $3,613 in tuition for the coming school year, according to the district’s website.
The statute states that school districts that want to charge tuition must get permission from the Connecticut education commissioner and, if granted, notify parents by Sept. 1 of the year before payments are to begin.
During a previous school board meeting, member Josh Esses said the professional courtesy is particularly unfair if the teacher is not a Stamford taxpayer. Stamford spends $21,454 per pupil each year, and the district should not “be giving these seats away to non-Stamford residents when there is a lot of in-Stamford demand,” Esses said.
Rhodes said extending the policy to out-of-town teachers is a bonus.
“If teachers live out of town and bring their children to inter-district schools, they are helping us” achieve the 75-25 requirement, Rhodes said.
“It’s one less person we have to go out and recruit for us to get to that 25 percent,” Lucero said. “We have to think about it like that.”
A superintendent’s discretion
Butler said she wants to see if “we can come up with a plan.”
The board has the right to do what it chooses, Lucero said, but she recommends that the policy be rewritten to include teachers in the order of admission.
“I won’t be making another recommendation at this time,” Lucero said. “We would like it to stand as is.”
The Policy Committee then voted against approving her recommendation. Three members voted no and two voted yes.
It now goes to the full board for a vote at its June 27 meeting. For policies to pass, they must go through two readings, and this was the first. If it passes on June 27 it must go through the process again in July, unless board members vote to suspend the rules. If it fails on June 27, “that’s the end of it,” Board of Education President Jackie Heftman said.
But it is board policy that magnet-school admissions are under the direction of the superintendent, Heftman said.
“Admissions will be limited to the approved number of available seats, unless exceptions are authorized by the superintendent,” the policy states.
“Until this point, it has been at the discretion of the superintendent,” Heftman said. “If this fails, that remains in effect. She still has the discretion.”
Butler questioned why there is a policy if a superintendent can override it.
“There are lots of policies that allow me discretion to do things because there are important reasons for me to do it,” Lucero said. “I would prefer for the board to fix this, but that is something I can do.”