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Banks, Gaston open more pupil slots


Numbers not on Forest Groves side in second year of enrollment law

It’s round two of open enrollment for school districts across Washington County.

Small rural districts like Gaston and Banks stand to gain students again in the second year of a state law that gives students the freedom to attend school outside of the school district boundary in which they live.

Banks School District had received 48 open-enrollment requests — 33 of those will be new to the district — for next school year as of Tuesday, and Gaston received 65. Banks opened 139 slots for out-of-district students next school year; Gaston opened 130.

By comparison, Forest Grove School District received four open enrollment requests. The district opened 100 slots for 2013-14. This year, the district gained 50 students through open enrollment, but lost 120, according to district spokeswoman Connie Potter.

Under House Bill 3681, passed by the Oregon Legislature in 2011, school districts may choose to open their doors to students who don’t live within district boundaries. The law changed the rules for students seeking transfers out of their local districts. Instead of requiring the home district to release a student, it's now the pupil's prerogative to attend a district of choice if the district has room and allows such transfers.

The controversial bill, intended to allow students and parents a wider berth in terms of school choice, was eyed warily by many of the larger school districts in Washington County last year as school boards mulled whether to allot spaces to out-of-district students.

Officials at larger districts worried that the draw of smaller class sizes would lure students — and money — out of their districts to other school districts in the area.

Banks and Gaston both gained students in the first year of HB 3681, but exact numbers are somewhat murky because both districts already had students attending through traditional inter-district transfers.

“Every student is significant in a small rural school district for planning programs, staffing and revenue,” said Banks Superintendent Bob Huston.

With every student comes roughly $6,000 in state school funding. And that's why both districts have tried to spread the word about the advantages of attending a smaller district.

Both placed ads in local newspapers and Gaston placed banners in town to remind passers-by of the open enrollment window.

Huston said the net gain of students this year as a result of HB 3681 was 10 students. For the 2013-14 school year, he said, "we needed 37 new students to hold even in enrollment." The district got 33 new enrollment requests.

It’s a similar story in Gaston, where the district gained 17 new students this year through HB 3681. The district, though, has a total of 68 students attending its schools from outside district boundaries. The majority of those were attending Gaston schools prior to the new law taking effect.

At a minimum, HB 3681 has helped keep Gaston’s enrollment from the steady decline it's seen over the last five years. March enrollment was 463 students. Gaston draws students from surrounding districts of Banks, Yamhill-Carlton and Forest Grove, as well as Hillsboro, McMinnville and even Portland. According to district records, 15 students new to the district last year came from Forest Grove school district boundaries. Those numbers may be misleading, though, because some of those students were home-schooled , attending private school or were already attending a different school district.

The final outcome for districts — good or bad — will have to wait. School districts won't know until May how many of their students have requested to leave the district. And no one will know for sure the net outcome of open enrollment until pupils show up on the first day of school in September.