Sunday, February 04, 2001

Special election to decide one student's fate

By Andrea Tortora
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Deborah Wilson (left) and neighbor Carol Glotfelter want their residential district changed so Amy Sears, 6, can change schools.
(Michael E. Keating photo)
| ZOOM |
        UNION TOWNSHIP — Deborah Wilson never dreamed that enrolling her daughter for first grade would be such a nightmare.

        When 6-year-old Amy Sears begins school this fall, Ms. Wilson wants to send her to West Clermont's Willowville Elementary, less than two miles from home.

        The problem is, by law, Amy is required to attend Clermont Northeastern's Primary School, nine miles away in Owensville, because that's the district where she resides.

        Now Ms. Wilson finds herself fighting two school districts and the state of Ohio for the right to do what she thinks is best for her daughter. On Tuesday, she's taking her case to the voters.

  The courts use these factors to decide a school district property transfer:
  • The new district must be close to or border the neighboring district.
  • The new district must offer greater access to extracurricular activities and provide a shorter traveling distance and a shorter bus ride to school.
  • The family's social, business and community life is already focused on the new district.
  • The new district provides a safer transportation route.
  • The social and educational needs of students will be better served by the new district.
  • The personal preference of affected families.
        “I want what's best for my child,” Ms. Wilson said. “I don't want her to ride a bus for 115 minutes a day to get to Clermont Northeastern Primary when she can go to school right here.”

        Ms. Wilson's experience mirrors a fight that's picking up steam statewide — in some cases, dividing communities.

        Across Ohio, parents moving into growing rural communities find that school district boundaries drawn when an area was mostly farmland are outdated now that the pastures are being replaced by homes.

        West Clermont won't let Ms. Wilson in — even though it's closer — because the district is already struggling to accommodate its expanding population.

        Clermont Northeastern won't let Ms. Wilson leave because the shrinking district wants to preserve its tax base and current population.

        A special election Tuesday asks the 6,000 registered voters in the Clermont Northeastern school district to allow Ms. Wilson and five neighbors to transfer their 110 acres to the West Clermont district.

        “Eastgate is our community,” Ms. Wilson said. “We don't know Owensville. We don't go there. Amy is familiar with other children who go to Willowville.”

        If voters approve the transfer, the West Clermont Board of Education must then review the case. The district can legally deny the transfer despite the vote's outcome.

        In southwest Ohio, as elsewhere, more residents are fighting to transfer their homes to closer school districts while educators fight to preserve their tax bases and ward off burgeoning school-age populations.

  Because school district boundaries do not fit the checkerboard model residents and educators would prefer, there are numerous provisions that spell out how to clarify the boundaries.

        The scattered nature of the district lines stems from Ohio's farm culture, when in the 1920s, residents simply chose which schools their children would attend and then became part of that district.

        As more land was developed into subdivisions, those boundaries became troublesome. For example, there are streets where the school district lines zigzag back and forth, and even cut through one person's property.

        When that happens, the master bedroom is the tiebreaker. Whatever school district the bedroom is in becomes the district of record for the homeowner.

        Milford Schools Superintendent John Frye said boundary lines should be honored because they preserve a system of public education.

        “Boundaries were established a long time ago, but we think it's better to honor the boundaries than to change them because you don't know if we could ever establish solid boundaries because someone will always be on the edge.”

        Ohio Revised Code allows property owners to seek a hearing from the state Board of Education. The board approved eight property transfers in 2000 and hears up to 40 cases a year, spokeswoman Patti Grey said. The board expects even more cases this year.

        Ms. Wilson is exhausting every avenue to get Amy into Willowville. She and neighbor Carol Glotfelter took the case to the state board. A hearing officer recommended that the transfer occur. The board will rule on the case Feb. 13.

        No matter what voters or the state board decide, however, the final decision rests with West Clermont Schools. That precedent was set by a 1990 case, Garfield City Heights School District vs. State Board of Education.

        All nine Clermont school boards have taken a stand against property transfers. Each passed a resolution that states property transfers will not be accepted.

        Charles Shreve, Clermont Northeastern superintendent, said the issue is divisive.

        “I certainly understand an individual's motivation in trying to do what's best for their child, just as I hope people understand that I take the position that's in the best interest of all children in the district,” Mr. Shreve said.

        “It is a concern because the boundaries of the district define the district and provide wealth. Our growth is on the fringes. Some of our most valuable areas are on our edges.”

  • In November, Elizabeth Schmitt and John and Patricia Donohoo sought a transfer from Clermont Northeastern to Milford schools. That issue was decided when 52 percent of voters said no.
  • In Butler County, New Miami schools lost the 92-acre Governor's Hill subdivision to Hamilton schools in a transfer approved by the state board this year. New Miami is appealing the case through the Franklin County courts.
  • In 2000, the state board approved transfers between Princeton and Lakota schools; from Talawanda to Ross; and from Cincinnati Public to Forest Hills.
  • In Warren County, when Kings Local Schools opens the new South Lebanon Elementary this fall, students who live across the street won't be able to attend. That's because they live in the Little Miami district and must attend Maineville Elementary, 10 miles away.
  A land swap between the districts provided the land for the new school. Now Little Miami is bracing for reams of transfer requests once new residents realize they can't attend South Lebanon, Superintendent Ralph Shell said.
        Amy is the only school-age child who lives on the property in question. What Ms. Wilson and Mrs. Glotfelter are doing has angered some Clermont Northeastern residents. The special election will cost Clermont Northeastern up to $15,000 to man voting booths and cover other costs.

        Pam Humphries, whose children attended Clermont Northeastern (CNE) schools, gets mad when she sees campaign fliers that tout the property transfer as something good for all children in the school district.

        “Not every homeowner who lives on the border should have the right to transfer their property,” Mrs. Humphries said. “They are not thinking of others in the community.

        “West Clermont is a very large school district and anyone on the fringe of CNE will be closer to a West Clermont school because there is only one CNE primary.”

        Last year, Clermont Northeastern earned $7,039 from the property owners who want to leave. The district also has a 1 percent income tax.

        The district's enrollment is already declining — down more than 700 students in the past seven years.

        Meanwhile, the growing West Clermont district is struggling to serve its current student population, Superintendent Mike Ward said.

        That's why open enrollment is not offered, an option Ms. Wilson said she would take if it existed.

        “We are the 22nd largest district in the state of Ohio and unlike businesses, we are not intent on growing in size,” Mr. Ward said. “We are intent in growing in student achievement. We are at capacity now.”

        Ms. Wilson began her fight in 1999, hoping to fix the situation before Amy started kindergarten this year.


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