Since school started back, parents may no longer have their children transferred from one Bulloch County school to another on the basis of various “hardship” circumstances throughout the year.
As required under Georgia’s 2009 public school choice law, families will still be able to apply for a reassignment to a different school in the county during a three-week window in May. Seats are assigned then on an as-available basis, and when the number of requests exceeds the seats available in a school, a publicly conducted drawing is used to decide who gets to transfer.
But what has been eliminated is the former Section B of the Bulloch County Schools transfers policy. This local “hardship transfers” provision went further than state law requires, allowing families who were first denied a May transfer to request a special transfer when attending an assigned school would “have a documented adverse effect upon the child or the child’s family” severe enough to justify the move in the eyes of committee.
The three-member hardship committees consisted of the principal of the school the student would be leaving, the principal of the receiving school and a third member designated by the superintendent. In practice, the third member was system Chief Operations Officer Paul Webb, who welcomed the change when it was unanimously approved July 28 by the Board of Education.
“Like so many things, what started out with good intentions years ago has been used and abused to a point that it’s almost out of control,” Webb said, “and here we are trying to even out school capacity, when last year we went through 163 hardship applications.”
Webb had reported to the board on the topic in mid-July. Of the 163 applications in the 2015-16 term, 25 had been for the high schools, which are considered “open schools.” So the high school transfers were automatically approved.
Of the remaining 138 transfer requests on behalf of elementary and middle school students in 2015-16, all were for “extenuating circumstances” and none for medical reasons, Webb reported. Of those 138 requests, the committees denied 43.
In spring 2015, Webb led an effort to redraw bus transportation lines to shift about 150 students from Langston Chapel Elementary School, which had been operating at capacity, to Sallie Zetterower Elementary, which had some unused classrooms.
The volume of transfer requests threatened to counteract such efforts to even out numbers of students to schools that have space for them, he said.
When Webb reported to the board again July 28, the school system had been through the summer rush of hardship applications for 2016-17.
Originally, the policy change had been on that evening’s agenda to be “placed on the table” for a vote this week. But with school about to start back Aug. 1, board members went ahead and approved the change July 28.
Webb said that hardship requests “in the pipeline” at that time were being processed, but no more were to be accepted.
Through July 27, there were 65 requests for this school year. Of those, about 14 were for high school transfers and were granted automatically. Of the elementary and middle school applications, 18 had been approved, Webb said the first week of school.
Children who transfer to a different elementary school through May school choice are allowed to remain in that school in later grades, but are not guaranteed a seat at the middle school in the same district. That had been a reason for some of the requests.
High school window
Although the three high schools are still considered open to any grades 9-12 student in the county, requests for transfers between high schools will also be limited to the first three weeks in May, Webb said in an interview.
This was never a matter of board policy, “but of superintendent’s procedure,” he said. The high schools had been open to transfers throughout the year only for the past three years, and the limitation to the May window is a return to the past practice.
By knowing then how many transfers to expect, principals are able to prepare better during the summer, hiring more teachers if necessary, Webb said.
Board member Steve Hein, who seconded the motion to eliminate hardship transfers, said he prefers to view the change as aligning with state policy and with that of several surrounding counties. Board member Glennera Martin, who made the motion, said she thinks that having students attend their assigned schools so that some schools are not overloaded is fairer to everybody.
But the board needs to be attentive to parents’ reasons for requesting the transfers, she said.
“We have to be careful about those reasons that they give you for attending this school over that school, because I tend to think all of our schools are great schools, and if they are not, we need to move toward improving them,” Martin said.
The 2009 school choice law did not set the May timeframe, but Georgia Department of Education rules written to comply with the law require that school systems provide parents at least 14 days each year to apply.
Herald reporter Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.