Some Stanislaus County students and their families are caught in the middle of a tug-of-war between school districts eager to keep them enrolled where they live and those who accept transfers.
That stalemate could prompt the Stanislaus County Office of Education to require districts to be more responsive when parents ask to transfer their child to a different campus.
Many districts are tightening their grip on granting transfers and are holding on to their students in the face of deep state cuts to their budgets. School budgets primarily are set on the number of students who attend class each day, so any reduction in students means less cash from the state.
When a transfer is denied in Stanislaus County, some families appeal directly to their district's board of trustees; other boards have decided not to hear appeals, so they go straight to the county board of education.
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The Riverbank Unified School District has a reputation for letting appeals go to the county board. Ceres Unified School District tends to give parents at least one hearing in front of its board before letting them go to the county to make a case.
"Our board is extremely frustrated when they hear that these families haven't been able to talk to their local boards," said county Superintendent of Schools Tom Changnon.
Policy changes discussed
Over the past several months, the county board has heard appeal after appeal. Changnon has talked with district superintendents about changing policies to allow families to appeal to their local boards, but some boards aren't keen on the idea.
"The response has been mixed. In some districts, they'd rather give the authority to the superintendent," Changnon said.
Trustees also worry that hearing appeals would add hours to their board meetings, he said. But as publicly elected board members, he said, trustees should want to hear from their constituents.
Luis Molina, chairman of the county board, said local school boards are skirting their responsibility when they ignore transfer appeals. Denying appeals changes families' lives, he said.
"We're left to do the dirty work, quite frankly," Molina said. "Our concern is that not all options and not all resources have been exhausted by the time it's coming to us."
Molina acknowledged that he and fellow board members don't like having to decide the appeals, saying it's difficult to choose between siding with the families or with the districts.
Families ask for transfers for a variety of reasons, but only a few are allowed under the state Education Code. For instance, a student cannot transfer for a sports program but can for a special educational program that's not offered by the home district. Officials take into account siblings who want to attend the same school, student safety and any hardship that denying a transfer will place on a family.
Changnon said he hopes to continue exerting friendly pressure on superintendents. Molina said he wants the county school boards association to take up the issue. If not, the county board of education is considering changing its policy — if it's legal — to prohibit hearing appeals unless local boards have heard them first.