Grosse Pointe schools decide against tuition option

Holly Fournier
The Detroit News

The school board for Grosse Pointe Public Schools has unanimously rejected a tuition enrollment program floated last month to bump up student population and address cash shortages.

“This was one thing we were considering among many options to deal with the budget issues,” Board President Brian Summerfield said. “But the thought of the board members, generally speaking, is we have community schools; our kids walk to our schools. We want to keep our families vested in the community schools and this really didn’t fit that kind of model.”

Board members Monday evening voted 7-0 against the measure, which would have broken a long-standing tradition of limiting school enrollment to residents of the district. The proposal was introduced April 24 at a public meeting.

“This never really had traction in Grosse Pointe. It was on a laundry list of bad options that we are considering,” Summerfield said of the proposal.

Officials have now turned their attention to possible staff reductions, salary decreases, higher activity fees and privatization of custodial services to address $2 million in looming budget cuts, Summerfield said. School enrollment has dropped by 1,000 in the past decade and is expected to continue to fall.

“Of course, we’re not really interested in any of the things we’re doing, but that had the least amount of support,” Summerfield said of the tuition proposal.

The board rejected tuition enrollment during a lengthy meeting Monday night, during which some members focused on community investment as a reason to reject the idea.

“A lot of board members expressed concern over the idea of pitting school districts against each other,” Summerfield said. “We thought it was good for (non-resident) parents to be involved in their local communities.

“One of the reasons people are so vehemently against (pulling students from other cities) is that it destroys the communities these kids come from.”

Officials also began to question the proposal’s main draw: potential revenue for the cash-strapped district.

“The revenue was speculative at best,” said Summerfield, noting the district did not know how many non-resident students the program would have attracted. “We were considering a change to the nature of a community schools for maybe nothing.”

Superintendent Gary Niehaus also said some officials doubted the fundraising potential of tuition.

“Our board and community did not feel the tuition collected through this proposal would garner enough funds to fix the structural deficit,” Niehaus said. “They will approve a balanced budget by June 30.”

Other Michigan districts with tuition enrollment programs have attracted anywhere from a few dozen to more than 100 non-resident students whose families pay around $10,000 a year to attend, according to officials in those districts. While tuition details were never formalized in Grosse Pointe, board members estimated the rate would have been around $13,000.

Bloomfield Hills Schools has offered the program on-and-off for more than 15 years, depending on available space, according to spokeswoman Shira Good. The district had 133 non-resident, tuition students on its October count day.

Tuition there ranges from $9,500 to $11,600, depending on grade level. Eligible students must have a 2.0 grade point average.

In Birmingham, 51 tuition-paying students are enrolled this year, according to spokeswoman Marcia Wilkinson. The parents of those students pay between $11,500 and $13,400 per year.

Birmingham has offered the program as space permits for at least 15 years to students with a 2.5 to 2.8 grade point average and no disciplinary issues in their home district.

Elsewhere in the state, Grand Ledge Public Schools charges tuition for non-resident students in 10th grade or higher, and East Grand Rapids Public Schools offers a tuition program for out-district students in ninth and 10th grades.

Out-district students who pay tuition typically do not bring with them any per-pupil state funds, or foundation allowance, according to JoAnne Messina, manager of Bloomfield Hills student services. A student’s home district must allow funding to follow a student to his or her new district.

This differs from the tuition-free school choice model, wherein funding automatically follows students to their chosen districts.

“If a resident district does release funding, we subtract that district's foundation grant from the grade-appropriate tuition amount and the family pays the difference,” Messina said.

The Michigan Department of Education does not appear to keep records of how many districts offer non-resident tuition programs, according to spokesman William DiSessa. But the approach is available to all under the Revised School Code Act 451 of 1976, which allows for tuition and sets limits on what a district can charge.

“Districts only are obligated to offer a free education to their resident pupils,” DiSessa said. “Districts may, under state law, charge tuition to nonresident students.”

Detractors of the law include the Great Lakes Education Project, a bipartisan schools of choice advocacy group.

“In general, you are creating selective enrollment schools, and you can cherry pick the students that you bring into your schools by setting up these barriers to tuition, (including) GPA and disciplinary records,” said Beth DeShone, advocacy director at the Great Lakes Education Project. “Taxes fund our K-12 education system, so we believe that creates free access for all to a quality education choice. We are absolutely supportive of universal school choice if there is space available (in a district).”

DeShone said common enrollment requirements may exclude some students, including those with special needs or those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds.

“If you are attaching a monetary figure to charge a child to come to your educational institution, whether it’s $10 or $10,000, it creates a barrier of entry for some segment of students,” she said. “And the GPA and the disciplinary (benchmarks) are barriers for entry to other segments of students in our K-12 population.”

The requirements are necessary to ensure student success, according Messina.

“We have a pretty rigorous academic program and not all schools districts have that same level of rigor,” she said. “So we don’t really want to take money from a family if the student isn’t going to be able to succeed.”

Non-resident, special needs students have successfully enrolled in Bloomfield Hills under the district’s tuition program, Messina added.

Wilkinson offered a similar defense of Birmingham’s enrollment requirements.

“It’s just to make sure that the seats are open to the student who will not require extra services,” she said. “It’s in their best interest if they have a solid GPA and don’t have a history of behavioral problems.”

Ann Arbor Public Schools briefly considered charging tuition in 2013 but the idea “never really gained any traction in our community,” spokesman Andrew Cluley said.

The district instead later opted to open its borders, space permitting, to residents of neighboring intermediate school districts in Livingston, Ingham, Monroe, Jackson, Oakland, Lenawee, Wayne counties.

Previously, Ann Arbor had only accepted students from the Washtenaw Intermediate School Districts.

“That just falls into our core mission,” he said. “We are the Ann Arbor Public Schools; we are looking to serve students and we are public. We accept.”

HFournier@detroitnews.com

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Twitter: @HollyPFournier