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One Moment Please: Open enrollment

Thu, Jul 2nd, 2009
Posted in Commentary

On the cover of the June 29, 2009 issue of the Fillmore County Journal, we ran a story about the impact of open enrollment on Fillmore County.

Without a doubt, this has had an influence on school budgets and interaction between area schools, administrators, parents and children. Who hasn't been affected?

While there may have been good intentions when open enrollment was innocently launched in 1990, Fillmore County schools are contending with a serious challenge not uncommon among rural school districts all throughout Southeast Minnesota.

My wife was a graduate of Elgin-Millville High School, so we stay in touch with her family living in that area. Many of you may be aware of Elgin-Millville schools and Plainview schools combining to form one school district in 2006. They had already been operating jointly for certain sports for a number of years.

As some of you may know, Elgin, Millville and Plainview are located in Wabasha County. What's really interesting is that U.S. Census data shows Wabasha County's population is projected to grow from 21,610 in 2000 to 21,813 in 2007. Meanwhile, U.S. Census data indicates Fillmore County's population is projected to decline from 21,122 in 2000 to 20,850 in 2008. I'm not sure why the U.S. Census reports generate two different years of projection (2007 and 2008), but I think the more important observation to be made revolves around the direction the populations are heading. Wabasha County has been projecting a population increase of 213, while Fillmore County has been projecting a decrease of 272. What's even more interesting is that school districts like Elgin-Millville and Plainview have combined when their county and their individual towns are projected to grow, according to U.S. Census data. Based on this comparison, what direction are the Fillmore County schools heading?

The Dover-Eyota schools are facing a completely different challenge as a result of open enrollment. They have Rochester residents driving from Rochester to Eyota to drop their kids off at their schools for a variety of reasons mostly revolving around a perception of a higher quality of education and a safer rural school environment. What really has the residents of Dover and Eyota burning is the increase in their real estate taxes as a result of increased expenses at their highly esteemed schools. So, the residents of Dover and Eyota rightfully view their situation as subsidizing the education of those Rochester kids.

Meanwhile, in Fillmore County, we have a similar yet different evolution as a result of open enrollment.

For example, my family recently claimed residency in the City of Fountain, which we have discovered is quite possibly the most contested town on the Fillmore County map. As one of the smaller towns in the county, with a population of 343 (based on the 2000 U.S. Census), throughout the school year we have five buses transporting children to four different school districts.

Chosen Valley, Fillmore-Central, Lanesboro and Kingsland all pick up children in Fountain, while all of the children residing in this little town are actually in the Fillmore-Central School District.

The unraveling outcome of open enrollment has essentially applied America's free enterprise system to our education system.

What can be good about that? School administrators and teachers are charged with providing the best educational experience for the sake of the children - hopefully satisfying the expectations of the parents. Hence, in theory, all area schools are forced into a competitive situation.

What can be bad about that? Just with any human interaction, sometimes people don't get along. Parents can feel a teacher or even athletic coach isn't living up to their expectations, and the threat of open enrollment is ever so prevalent. Sometimes the option can be used as a power trip. Not always, but I have heard of a few situations.

The reality is that the Lanesboro School District is the greatest benefactor of the current system, bringing 120 out-of-district students into their school system, with three or four of their district students going elsewhere, for a net gain of roughly 116 students. With the State of Minnesota granting upwards of $5,000 per student, that amounts to roughly $580,000 being extracted from area schools into the Lanesboro School District.

There are many who feel the parents of students who want their children to attend school in another district should be required to transport their children to the other school, or possibly meet up with the bus that picks up those children from another district - especially considering the fluctuating cost of fuel. School buses aren't exactly recognized for their fuel efficiency.

The problem with this expectation is that the State of Minnesota has no requirements in that regard, and schools can view driving extra miles as a minimal expense when they stand to gain $5,000 per year for picking up another student.

There are many good points coming from all directions.

Understandably, there's a significant amount of animosity between parents, schools and communities affected by open enrollment. It's a bitter rivalry unlike anything we typically see at a heated high school football game. Athletic programs are being cut along with teaching jobs and programs. All of these changes result in fewer opportunities for students, and people are not pleased with this reduction.

In an ideal world, everyone would be happy if all of the schools agreed not to actively pursue students in other districts. The problem is that every school in Fillmore County is facing the same challenge of stagnant or declining population - student enrollment included. We basically have a Darwinist "survival of the fittest" system feasting on the prospects of gaining students and consuming budgetary dollars from area schools.

The end result is that 32.8% of the students attending the Lanesboro School District are coming from other school districts for a variety of reasons.

There's been speculation that certain schools in Fillmore County have even gone so far as offering color televisions to the parents of students who would take advantage of open enrollment and transfer a student to their school. That's all hearsay, so I have nothing to substantiate that. To be honest, if it is the case, I think it is quite odd, and at the same time irrelevant in the grand scheme of things. However, I do have my eye on a 100" flat screen plasma TV. Could I get a side order of microwave popcorn and one complimentary movie rental to go with that?

Seriously, don't blame the schools for "poaching" students from other districts. The system is set up to encourage this scenario. I honestly can't imagine it evolving any other way. Boundaries have been eliminated. What should we expect to happen? If it wasn't Lanesboro, it would be another school in Fillmore County. If students didn't carry a state-funded bounty of roughly $5,000, and maybe instead it was only $250, I'm sure we'd see a completely different situation. But, that's not the case. There's some serious money on the table, and at risk.

If you are not happy with the outcome of open enrollment, blame the State of Minnesota and those lobbyists and legislators involved in making the decision that led to our current dilemma. With the way things move at the state level, disbanding the concept of open enrollment may not take place in our lifetime. Maybe State Representatives Greg Davids or Jeanne Poppe could offer some direction on this issue. I'm sure State Senators Sharon Ropes or Dan Sparks could offer some thoughts as well.

The problem remains, "Where do we go from here?"

With budget crunches and consistently declining enrollment, is there a county-wide school in our future, as some have suggested?

As the parent of two children under the age of five, the open enrollment issue is at the forefront of discussion in our household. We have already made our decision, so there won't be any persuasion with the offering of a color television - but can I keep the popcorn?

Do you remember the days when kids grew up in a neighborhood together, went to school together and graduated together? I look around my neighborhood in Fountain and see that is not going to be the case. Things have changed, and it's completely different from the way it was when I was a kid. Nonetheless, change is affront and the management of our education system has arrived at a crossroads of substantial reform. I'm cautiously optimistic. Don't get me wrong, I don't mind change as long as it doesn't affect me. That's a joke, by the way.

Since I live in the highly contestable market of Fountain, drawing buses from every direction, this appears to be the perfect place to build our county-wide school. The City of Fountain is in growth mode, boasting a projected population increase of 'one' by the year 2007 (most current information according to U.S Census data) - taking the city's population from 343 to 344. We don't mean to brag, but it is a sign of growth.

Of course, if I lived in Etna, I'd think that would be the perfect location for a county-wide school, too.

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