The News Courier in Athens, Alabama

November 7, 2013

Board splits on school zone waiver decision

By Kim West

— Limestone school officials have decided to cancel school zone waivers that were mandated by a school choice law no longer in effect, despite requests by parents to allow their children to graduate with their current classmates.

The Limestone County Board of Education voted 4-2 during Tuesday’s regular meeting to accept a recommendation by Superintendent Dr. Tom Sisk to cancel the waivers.

Board members Marty Adams, Earl Glaze, James Shannon and Charles Shoulders voted yes, while Bret McGill and Darin Russell dissented. Anthony Hilliard did not attend the meeting due a family emergency.

The Limestone central office previously told The News Courier that 19 or 20 letters were sent to affected parents, and the letters explained students could finish at their current school.

This means a student attending Blue Springs Elementary School because of the waiver would not progress to Clements with their classmates without their parents moving from Tanner to the Clements district.

Blue Springs is a K-5 school that feeds into grades 6-12 at Clements High School. The board has made an exception to the waiver cancellation, which allows students previously granted a school choice waiver the option of grading out, or finishing, their current school.

Differing opinions

McGill, who lives in the Clements district, pointed out that the mitigating circumstances should call for discretionary decision-making by the school board and superintendent to allow the small number of students affected to keep their waivers.

He maintained that his support for the parents and students did not diminish his belief that a quality education is available at any of the schools within the district’s six school zones.

Shoulders, a Tanner resident, said the parents have the same options available to them before federal law compelled the board to approve policy variances.

“By August of next year, (parents can) either establish a residence in that district or stay where they’re at,” said Shoulders. “The law changed, and we have to change with it.”

Four parents of elementary students who live in Tanner but attend Blue Springs due to the waivers addressed the school board during its Oct. 1 meeting.

All four said they were told their children would be allowed to graduate with their classmates from Clements if they enrolled them at Blue Springs.

“My wife Andrea and I are sixth and seventh-generation Limestone County residents that graduated from Tanner and East (Limestone),” said Dustin Menefee, whose oldest son attends Blue Springs under the waiver. “We were told by a former central office employee he would be able to finish school.

“We made the decision on good faith, and this is a unique situation that affected those of us (with waivers).”

During Tuesday’s meeting, a board member asked Sisk whether the parents were given this information. Sisk, who was not with the school system when the waivers were granted, responded he could not verify this but said that the system needed to comply with the legislative changes.

Issue background

The No Child Left Behind Act previously forced the Limestone school board to grant the school zone variances.

The federal education law allowed about 1,800 students in Alabama to switch schools during the 2012-13 school year, according to the state Department of Education.

These waivers permitted students in the Tanner district to enroll in the Clements district because the law allowed students to leave any high-poverty school tagged with the controversial “school improvement” label.

“Our state Department of Education granted a waiver from the school improvement section (of NCLB),” said Mary Robinson, director of federal programs. “There aren’t any school improvement schools in the state of Alabama.

“When that happened, we no longer have to offer school choice … we found out at the end of July, and as soon as we knew, we sent out letters to parents.”

School districts are now under the guidelines of the Alabama Accountability Act passed by the state Legislature earlier this year. Under this law, no school in the Limestone district is designated as a so-called “failing” school, and none are listed as needing improvement.

“School choice was not a decision made by this board,” Sisk said. “It was imposed upon us by the federal government, and there are no schools that are on the list … I don’t want people to think we have any bad schools in Limestone County.

“We previously established zone lines for the system, which is what I said in the letter I sent to the parents at the beginning of the school year.”