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Somerset School District rejects one open enrollment request

The Somerset School Board found themselves between the proverbial rock and a hard place Monday at their regular meeting.

When considering open enrollment requests for the 2012-13 school year, the board eventually voted 5-2 to approve all applications with the exception of one. If all of the families that requested to participate in open enrollment follow through with their wishes, 30 students from outside the district will be enrolled in Somerset schools next year and 20 students from within the district will attend school elsewhere.

According to Superintendent Randy Rosburg, the district has typically had more outside students wishing to attend school in Somerset than the other way round.

The board did reject an open enrollment request from a family wishing to enroll a student in the district's state-recognized autism program.

Director of Pupil Services Darren Kern said the autism program is full and adding students would likely pose a problem.

Guidelines for autism education programs call for a recommended eight to 10 students per teacher, Kern noted, and Somerset's teachers currently have caseloads of 11 and 14.

Since Somerset was recognized by the state for its high-quality autism program, Kern said a number of families have moved to the community to take advantage of the offering. In any given summer, the district might see three to five families moving into the district due to the specialized autism program, he said.

Board members struggled with the question of whether to allow the autistic student to enroll in the district next year or not.

Board member Marie Colbeth said she was against saying no, noting that recent history indicates that the district will need to hire another special education teacher by next year anyway and thus an extra spot would likely be available.

But many board members, including newcomer Kelly Ott, said it would be a bad idea to accept an additional student in case a new teacher is not hired. School districts are allowed to reject open enrollment requests if specific programs or grade levels are considered "full."

"Emotionally, if we have a great program, I'd want that child here," Ott said. "It's the legal precedence I worry about."

Board member Mike Connors agreed, suggesting that the district's current policy is to reject open enrollment requests if there is not room for the student. He said accepting students even when there are no spots available could force the district to accept other students in the future even if there is no room for them.

The board took two votes on the open enrollment requests and both failed. One motion was to accept all open enrollment applications and another was to accept all applications except the request from the family with the child with autism.

Because the district must respond to every family's applications by June 8, board member Tim Witzmann said inaction was not acceptable.

In the end, a second motion to accept all applications except the one family was approved 5-2, with Colbeth and Tom Walters voting no.

"That's a tough one," commented board member Brian Moulton following the vote.

Ott noted that the student could possibly be enrolled in the district next year if the family appeals. As the appeal process moves forward, and if more families with kids with autism move into the district and an additional teacher is needed, a spot might open up.

In other business:

* The board elected new officers for the 2012-13 school year. Witzmann, who has served as president for four years, declined to seek another term. Brian Moulton was elected president, after several potential candidates refused to be considered for the position. Robert Gunther was elected vice president; Marie Colbeth clerk; and Mike Connor treasurer. Colbeth thanked Witzmann for leading the district well during challenging times. "You did an excellent job," she said.

* The district continues to work on its 2012-13 budget, which remains about $120,000 in the red. When discussions began in January, the district faced a $300,000 deficit, Rosburg said. With possible delays in maintenance and savings realized from staff retirements, Rosburg said the deficit is declining. He said he expects the budget to be balanced by the time the final numbers are computed, but noted there are about eight variables the district is working with to try and balance the finances. "It's going to require some real give and take," Colbeth said.

* The board met with graduating seniors to discuss their educational careers in Somerset and listened to suggestions for improvement from the students. The students offered ideas for additional course offerings, school policy changes and disciplinary rule concerns.

* Elementary Principal Cherrie Wood reported that their sixth annual career fair was a huge success, with some 25 community members agreeing to talk about their jobs and businesses. "It's a real tribute to this community," she said. "The support they provide the school district."

* Moulton said he'd recently spent some time in the middle school, visiting classrooms that have student numbers between 27 and 28. He said the crowding situation is something that needs to be addressed. "Anything we can do to reduce those numbers to the low 20s would be a big positive for us," he told the board.