Superintendents unhappy with commissioner’s decisions on allowing student transfers

Maine Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen’s practice of allowing students to transfer from one school district to another without a change of residence is drawing opposition from school superintendents around the state.

Some superintendents say the easy transfers are destroying local control and could add significant costs to school systems. The spokesman for the state Department of Education disputes those claims and said the matter boils down to acting in the best interest of the students.

At issue is what are referred to as superintendent agreements.

Under state law, the superintendent of the school district where the student lives and the superintendent of the district the student wants to attend may approve a transfer if they find it is in the student’s best interest. The law allows parents to appeal to the education commissioner if the transfer is denied.

The commissioner’s decision is final and binding, according to Maine law.

Appeals seldom were granted under previous commissioners, according to superintendents interviewed Tuesday. But that has changed dramatically in the past two years.

For the 2011-2012 school year, there were 27 appeals filed with the commissioner by parents who had their transfer requests rejected by their superintendents, according to Maine Department of Education communications director David Connerty-Marin. Of those 27, the commissioner overruled the local superintendents 16 times and upheld the local decisions the other 11 times.

For 2012-2013, there have been 68 appeals filed already, Connerty-Marin said. Bowen has overruled local superintendents 50 times and granted the transfers. Only three appeals have been rejected while another 15 appeals still are under consideration.

There are 1,500 superintendent agreements approved across the state.

Connerty-Marin acknowledged that there has been a change in philosophy from past commissioners on whether to grant transfers at the state level.

“He [Commissioner Stephen Bowen] believes that the parents have their children’s best interest in mind and that is his starting point now,” Connerty-Marin said.

He said before the onus to prove that the transfer was in the best interest of the child was with the parents. Now the commissioner has put the onus on the district to show that a transfer would not be in the best interest of the student.

Sharp criticism

The change at the commissioner’s level has come under sharp criticism from superintendents.

Regional School Unit 13 Superintendent Lew Collins said his main concern is the loss of local control.

“Maine has been a leader in local control of education. This removes local control,” Collins said.

RSU 13 — which consists of Rockland, Thomaston, St. George, Owls Head, South Thomaston and Cushing — has 15 superintendent agreements. Nine are people moving into the district and six moving out.

The commissioner has overruled one rejected superintendent’s agreement that involves a student who wanted to attend another district.

Collins sent a letter to RSU 13 board members in which he criticized the new policy.

“This new ‘activism’ on the part of the state, if true, will effectively remove all local control from decisions about residency. So, if the parents of a child with extraordinary special needs costing another district $100,000 per year wants to attend RSU 13, the commissioner can, in effect, stick us with the bill for a child that does not reside within our boundaries,” Collins told the board in his letter dated Friday.

Paul Stearns, president of the Maine School Superintendents Association and superintendent of SAD 4 — which consists of Abbott, Cambridge, Parkman, Sangerville and Wellington — echoed the concerns voiced by Collins.

He said the intent of state education laws is for students to attend schools in the communities where they live. He said it is not fair for one district to have to pick up the costs of educating a student from another district for any reason.

“This will create real chaos,” Stearns said.

SAD 40 Superintendent Susan Pratt said there have been three instances in her district this year in which the commissioner has overruled rejected transfer requests. She said in her previous 10 years in central office administration for schools, she can recall only one time when a rejection has been overruled by the state.

SAD 40 consists of Waldoboro, Union, Warren, Washington and Friendship.

Elaine Nutter, superintendent of the Five-Town Community School District which includes Camden, Rockport, Hope, Appleton and Lincolnville, said there has been one rejected transfer to Camden Hills Regional High School overruled by the commissioner this year. The district has 13 approved transfers, with nine coming to Camden Hills from other districts and four attending other districts.

Nutter said it is a financial problem when the commissioner overrules since the Five-Town CSD does not receive state aid, except for reimbursement of debt. When a student from another district comes to her district, local taxpayers are paying the costs.

Stearns said while there have been 68 appeals thus far this year, it likely would increase when parents become aware of the ability to transfer for any reason.

He said, for example, when one district builds a new school, there may be parents in adjoining districts who want their children to go there. The neighboring districts will suffer a loss of students and revenues simply because they have an older school, the association president argued.

Stearns said superintendents act reasonably when there are requests. He said, for example, there was a student whose father and grandfather had taken Reserve Officers Training Corps classes and the student wanted to transfer in his senior year to a school that offered ROTC. He said that was an easy call which he approved.

Connerty-Marin disputed the financial impact on the new policy. He said districts that receive special education students will be reimbursed for that education by the state. The Education Department spokesman also said that the transfer of a student does not dramatically increase the cost to a school system.

“You won’t have to hire another teacher for one student. You won’t have to hire another principal or bus driver. You won’t have to keep the lights on longer,” Connerty-Marin said.

The education spokesman said this should not be disruptive to schools. He said the vast majority of students go to school where they live.

There were about 189,000 public school students in Maine last year, according to the department’s website.

Connerty-Marin said that requests for transfers that may have been sought because it was more convenient for child care purposes based on where a parent worked had not been considered legitimate reasons for approval by superintendents. But the commissioner feels differently. He said if a transfer allows the parent to stay employed at a job, that should be encouraged.

Stearns said, however, he has emailed his local legislators to voice his concerns.

State Sen. Justin Alfond, D-Portland, who serves on the Legislature’s Education Committee, said while it is within the legal right of the commissioner to overrule local school districts, he disagrees with the commissioner’s approach. He said the commissioner repeatedly said during meetings across the state that he would respect the education field.

“He is not respecting the field. He is saying he doesn’t care what they think,” Alfond said.

Rep. David Richardson, R-Carmel, who is the House chairman of the Legislature’s Education Committee, said he was not aware of the change by the commissioner but said he would be checking into it when the committee meets Wednesday to consider gubernatorial appointments.

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Comments

 's picture

I had no idea there was anyone I could appeal to

Are the superintendents doing this wrong?
Are the school superintendents' decisions being issued without written notice of the right to appeal? Doesn't the state education law provide for written decisions to be issued in response to requests, and for written notice of a right to appeal if the decision is unfavorable?

On the other hand, is the state Department of Education doing this wrong?
Doesn't the state APA (Administrative Procedures Act) require that a change in policy (a change in the burden of proof in this case) be made only if public notice of the proposed change is given first, and that a public hearing on the planned change be scheduled if requested?

Cris Johnson's picture

Best interests of the child?

If anyone is suited to evaluate the best interests of a particular child in terms of his or her education it is the parents and the educators who have direct dealings and specialized knowledge of that child, not the Commissioner of Education.

A procedure to appeal a negative determination and assure a review of each situation has been in place for a long time. Almost universally, appeals are from parents and the determinations previously rendered were based upon whether appropriate consideration and weight were given to the underlying denial.

Suddenly, a new Commissioner, has unilaterally taken the position that he is in a better position to render a decision denovo rather than assuring that the denial wasn't arbitrary.

The explosion in appeals suggests to me that the Commissioner has hit upon a key element in what I believe is a very troubling strategy to render local control over taxpayer funds spent on public education in Maine meaningless.

John Frecker's picture

State taking more control of local school districts?

I thought conservatives like Governor LePage and his appointees believed in less government and less government intrusion in our lives. Looks to me like they're intruding more and more into the educational system in the state. Decisions that used to be made at the local level and now being made by state officials.

As Ms. Chute points out, there are cases when it would be in everyone's interest if a transfer were approved, but these cases should be few and far between. In this case, it seems to me that someone should be looking at the practices at the school.

Laurrel Chute's picture

Thank you Stephen Bowen!

I have been in a battle against a school system that allowed the ongoing abuse of my son by his teacher in a system that fights against parent involvement unless they are forcing kids to do massive amounts of homework. If that homework is done incorrectly(not reading the correct genre of book every day of the month) the student is penalized by not just a bad grade, but forced to put his head on his desk for extended periods of time while the other kids are at recess, eventually progressing to during special activities then during all class work. This went on for months! Thankfully it was witnessed by the guidance counselor who contacted me to come remove my son from the school. I have begged the superintendent to allow his transfer and was denied repeatedly no matter what the reason. I have had to homeschool my son the remainder of last school year(since March 2012) and now to start the new school year because the superintendents office refuses to allow transfer to any different school other than Longley(downtown slum school) which is NOT an option. I was referred to Learning Works by Advocates for Children and they all agree that my son should never have to go back to that school. Learning Works will be helping my son to get into Special Education testing and giving recommendations to placement, but I had no idea there was anyone I could appeal to. Thank you Sun Journal for showing me there is another option for parents in similar situations! Thank you Stephen Bowen for standing up for what is right for the CHILD not simply what the system approves of!

Laurrel Chute's picture

How could any PARENT Disagree with my statement?

What on earth is there to disagree with about my statement? How is it in this society that it is ok for someone to blame a child for their abuse by a teacher? That is like someone blaming an 11 year old girl for her gang rape by 18 young men! Disgusting!~

Laurrel Chute's picture

FYI

My son is not a behavior problem other than writing as it causes him pain and the only reason for the punishment he received was that he did not read the correct genre of book for that month every single day of that month. I own over 2,500 books and he can complete 2-3 books a day. How many mystery books can a 9 year old read in a row? How many books on animals? How many biography books? When did homework become so strict to force kids to re-read the same books over and over just to fail them because of that? My son is testing at far beyond his peers with the exception of writing and that has been a huge problem because schools have yet to allow computer use for those with hand coordination issues. I asked repeatedly for explanations why my son was coming home in pain and in tears, but was told it was simply school policy that a teacher can keep the child from any class activity they choose due to unfinished work. How does any child deserve to sit silent at a desk with their head down for sometimes hours get his work done? How does any child deserve to be ridiculed by a teacher in front of their peers simply for not completing homework to their exact specification? They DON"T! It wasn't until another adult witnessed this abuse that I was notified of the actual extent of it and I cried for him. He tried to tell me and I made calls, but when nothing changed my son felt like there was no help for him. He sat quietly with his head on his desk not causing any problems or fighting it because he felt he had no choice. I cry for him! I cried with him that day and several times since then because he feels helpless and hopeless to find a school he can learn in without abuse. I can only hope that those I have reached out to actually do as they believe they can and give my son the help he needs in a school that will love him for the wonderful, peaceful young man he is^j^

MEGAN PARKS's picture

NCLB Act

Lauri,
Longley is included in the list of failing schools in Lewiston (No Child Left Behind Act). This allows you, and every other parent, the right to request for your child to attend either McMahan or Martel schools and the city is required to provide transportation for your son to either of these schools as well. Did you not receive a notice of this in the mail this summer? Let me know if you need more information. =)

Laurrel Chute's picture

Thank you Megan.

Thank you Megan for your thoughtful and informative response. Sadly McMahon is where he used to go before custody disputes arupted into scenes there and my son became an outcast by his peers who could not understand that his father was to blame and there was nothing wrong with Mom(me) who was being attacked in front of students and family daily. The other problem is our in district school is Martel and that is where the abuse happened:( My son wishes to go back to McMahon, but fears the teasing of his old friends and is terrified to go back to Martel for understandable reasons. I hate the idea of him changing schools again and if it was possible to put him back to McMahon and he would be accepted there we would do that in a heartbeat, but the Superintendant refuses to allow any child to attend an out of district school stating all schools are over populated in his grade other than Longley so that is my only choice:( I currently am getting help from Learning Works to assist in special education testing with a posibility of a referral to a different school, but the process is long and daunting with no promise of help or options. I will talk to my son about McMahon again and see if Learning Works can help with negotiations with the Superintendant to place him back there using the information you gave. Thank you again and good luck to you^j^

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