LBI School Officials Explain Choice Program, Concerns Remain

The deadline for a resident district to be briefed about a student’s intent to participate in the Choice program is less than 10 days away, and comes at a time when officials in five Island communities have said they don’t support the program for the two schools in the Long Beach Island Consolidated School District because it’s too costly for local taxpayers.

“I don’t think they understand it,” said board member Allyn Kain, a member of an ad-hoc committee that met with elected officials from Barnegat Light, Harvey Cedars, Long Beach Township, Ship Bottom and Surf City Oct. 30, referring to those officials. “It doesn’t cost us anything.”

The program enables districts to accept students from kindergarten through high school who do not reside within school boundaries at no cost to their parents, according to the state Department of Education. Participation in the state program is optional for school districts and requires an application to the DOE.

When the program was established, the district was allotted 76 seats by the state, LBI district officials said. The state then limited the annual growth to 5 percent of current seats used. The following year the state reduced the maximum seats for the two-school district to 43. At that same time, the state mandated any unfilled seats would permanently reduce the maximum seats for the district. The following year the district filled 42 seats. Currently the district remains at 42, the new state maximum for LBI district, according to officials.

Board member Marilyn Wasilewski said that when the district agreed to participate in the program, the idea was for two or three students in each class to be a Choice student as a way of bringing in additional monies to the district. However, “there are nine Choice students in one class,” she said.

District Administrator Megan Gally said that trend will continue as long as the district makes 42 seats available to the program. “You will end up with six or seven Choice students in every grade unless you reduce the number of seats. If you do, you don’t get them back.”

The district can reduce the number of Choice students it accepts next summer when it submits its annual profile to the state, she explained. If the district agrees to decrease the number of seats it makes available for Choice students, the change would not take effect until the 2019-20 school year, she said.

In the meantime, the number of Choice students does not include any student whose family moves outside school boundaries but who continues to be educated in the district, Gally explained at a special meeting of the school board Nov. 14. Those students are considered non-funded Choice students, and by law the district has to allow them to continue for the school year if the parents request it, she said.

“We used to have a policy if the student leaves in April or May, they could remain until the end of the year,” Kain said.

Gally, however, noted the state mandate permits students who move outside the district’s boundaries at any point during the current school year to finish the year where they started. The district, however, cannot automatically convert a non-funded Choice student to a funded student for the next school year, district officials said.

An unfunded Choice student must apply to become a fully funded Choice student during the next application cycle, according to state education officials. If a district wants to enroll more non-funded students and exceed its Choice enrollment maximum, it may enroll students outside the Choice program.

Understanding Educational Costs

One of the benefits of the program, according to the DOE, is how open enrollment outside a district’s boundaries can ease the effect of budget crunches and create reliable operations since Choice students bring additional funding to the district.

“The state pays the Choice district the local portion of its adequacy budget (called the ‘local fair share’) in the form of ‘Choice aid,’ on a per pupil basis, for each Choice student,” said David Saenz, public information officer for the DOE. The resident districts keep the local tax levy collected for students who “choice out,” so this funding stays in the resident district. “In year two and beyond, any state aid attributable to Choice students (also called equalization aid) will also be paid to the Choice district. Transportation is provided by the resident/sending district.”

Currently, the district receives about $12,000 per each Choice student. For the 2015-16 school year, the most recent data available, the total cost per pupil is $32,913, according to the state DOE’s Taxpayers’ Guide to Education Spending 2017, which was released in April. The guide includes two types of total expenditures for school districts’ annual budgets: total spending per pupil and budgetary costs per pupil.

The total cost per pupil was first developed in 2011 to provide a more comprehensive representation of school district expenditures. Previous per-pupil calculations left out significant cost categories. The current formula uses a larger enrollment number, including all students for which the district is financially responsible. The figure includes transportation, food services, capital outlay, special revenues paid by local, state and federal authorities, as well as any payments the district makes to another private or public district for students’ regular, special and preschool education services, according to the taxpayer’s guide.

“For the 2015-16 school year, the average total spending per pupil in the state, which includes pension payments made by the state and other ancillary costs that vary by district, is $20,385,” said Michael Yaple, director of public information for the DOE. “This is 3.8 percentage points higher than the prior year’s average of $19,641.”

The budgetary cost per pupil excludes items that can vary by district, such as transportation or payment on debt for school construction, he said.

For the 2016-17 school year, the most recent data available, the budgeted costs amount per pupil for the district was $25,572, $167 less than the actual costs for the 2015-16 school year. The actual costs amount per pupil for 2014-15 was $1,532 less than the 2015-16 school year, according to the guide.

“The cost per pupil is the same for all students,” district officials said, noting the DOE website has a caveat that the budgetary per-pupil cost doesn’t provide an exhaustive picture of the cost for educating all students but offers a comparison of district spending. “There are no fees paid by districts for Choice (students).”

The farthest enrolled Choice student in the LBI system travels from Toms River, district officials said.

– Reposted from The Sandpaper