Dunn County civil matter calls attention to open enrollment policies

By Cara L. Dempski

ELK MOUND — Most parents want what is best for their children.

Part of that, at least in this country, is ensuring the children receive the best education possible. So, despite living in the Eau Claire district, Kenneth Books and his wife Kelly knew they wanted their children to attend school in Elk Mound.

At a recent Elk Mound school board meeting, Books told the district’s governing body he and his wife chose the district because of the its academic reputation.

[emember_protected] There was no problem open-enrolling the eldest three children in the district starting in 2011, but then something neither Kenneth nor Kelly anticipated happened: it was determined their youngest child would need special education services.

While there are plenty of open seats in regular education at Elk Mound, the open-enrollment availability completed in January 2017 indicated there would be no open special education seats during the 2017-2018 academic year. A recently-approved report indicates there is just one open space at the middle school for the 2018-2019 school year.

Current state statute allows districts to deny open enrollment applications for a variety of reasons, one of which is a lack of space in special education programming. A recent change to Elk Mound’s open enrollment policy reflects this, but Books and attorney Kirsten Hildebrand feel the new policy is not enough.

“It leaves out the ‘nevertheless policy,’” Books said during a recent phone call. “The statute says even if there’s no space, the board can still approve an open enrollment application.”

Background

The Eau Claire man thought he might have a solution to the issue in February 2017 when he attended school board meetings for both the Eau Claire Area School District and Elk Mound, proposing his home – and property owned by several neighbors to his north – be detached from the Eau Claire Area School district and attached to Elk Mound.

While the Elk Mound school board approved this measure, the Eau Claire district rejected it soundly, leading Books to file an appeal with the Department of Public Instruction’s School District Boundary Appeal Board.

The board found in favor of Eau Claire during the appeal process, citing the removal of several properties from one district and adding them to another as “extreme” in order to keep the Books’ youngest child with his three siblings.

While Books and Hildebrand argue the move is not extreme, and cite the social benefits for the youngest child and the financial benefits for the Elk Mound district, EM officials have been firm on their denial of the application, citing a lack of space.

No space

Currently, there are 115 individuals receiving special education services in Elk Mound schools. Special education program director Jen Olson says that number can be deceptive, though, considering an individual child may use multiple different services during the course of the day.

“Yes, there can be one child,” Olson explained. “But that one child might need speech therapy, or occupational therapy. It isn’t just one child in one place.”

According to Elk Mound’s district website, there are eight instructors dedicated to providing special education services. Superintendent Eric Wright indicated the district practices inclusion for students assisted by special education, allowing them to spend as much time in regular education classrooms as possible.

The combination of 115 students and eight teachers averages out to 14 students per instructor across the district, which is well below the DPI’s guideline student/teacher ratio of 26:1. However, the number is well above the ratio of 8:1 for self-contained classrooms serving students assessed as having severe disabilities.

Additionally, the DPI recommends districts factor caseloads by 90% for each classroom to determine if there will be any space available for students wishing to open enroll in special education programming. The 10-percent decrease in classroom population is what Wright believes builds a solid inclusionary program at Elk Mound.

Books said he looked up the licensure of every teacher employed by Elk Mound and found several regular education instructors who are also licensed for special education. He and Hildebrand argued those teachers could be shifted as necessary to provide more instructors in special education.

Wright pointed out teachers hired for regular education classrooms are already fully dedicated to the requirements of those classes.

Additionally, the lack of open enrollment seats in special education at Elk Mound is not unusual among smaller school districts of the area. Recently-released open enrollment availability information for Colfax, Boyceville and Glenwood City also indicate there are no open enrollment spaces available in special education for the 2018-2019 school year.

Statute indicates students denied open enrollment for a special education program in which there is no space revert to the district of their residence for education. For the Books family, that means the youngest child will have to attend school in Eau Claire, while his older siblings attend Elk Mound schools.

Books worries his older children will resent their younger brother if they are forced to return to Eau Claire schools to keep all the children together.

What is next

Books filed his petition with Dunn County in part because he is hoping for a reversal of the School District Boundary Appeal Board’s decision that would allow his home – and those of his joint petitioners – to join the Elk Mound district and eliminate a need to open enroll any of his children in EM.

But, he also admitted he is reluctant to give up his duties as parks chairman for the Town of Wheaton, and his wife would like to keep coordinating the Wheaton youth baseball program each summer.

Neither would be able to maintain their position with the town if they were to move to a different home.

And then, there’s the financial aspect of the issue: Books said his household is single income.

“I am not putting myself in a poor financial situation to move,” he said during a phone interview.

Books and his neighbors will take another step toward resolution of the issue early next week. A motion hearing via telephone is scheduled for January 30 at 9:30 a.m. before Dunn County Judge Rod Smeltzer.

In the end, Books wants to make sure his children get the best education possible.

“We are a Mounder family,” he said. “I would like to say all my kids graduated from Elk Mound.” [/emember_protected]