Our school board has not set a transfer student policy to govern how many transfer students to accept and how to select which applicants will be allowed to enroll. Decisions are left to the discretion of the superintendent with no oversight. An optimal policy would probably accept some transfer students in order to balance student numbers across grades in order to operate the schools at an efficient level and prevent classrooms from sitting empty. On the other hand, the high property values in our school district reflect the strong demand for our schools and a significant increase in the number of transfer students would cause a decrease in the premium buyers are willing to pay for a home in our district. It is the school board’s job to set a clear transfer student policy for our school administrators to follow.
About 55% of the school districts in Indiana accept transfer students through a process called “open enrollment” where the school district posts a transfer student policy that spells out how many open enrollment transfer students to accept in each grade and what to do if more than that number apply. Parents can submit an application for their child to attend any public school that accepts open enrollment transfers. State education funding follows the student and the receiving school district is allowed to charge the family “transfer tuition” up to the amount determined by a state formula. WLCSC is among the 45% of school districts in the state that do not accept open enrollment transfer students. So, how does West Lafayette have so many transfer students?
Indiana also allows two other mechanisms for accepting transfer students. The first type of “other transfer” is that a school district can choose to allow the children of employees (with an annual salary of at least $3,000) to transfer into the district. The second type of “other transfer” is that a school district can enter into a special agreement with another school district to allow transfers between them. Unlike with open enrollment, school districts using these two methods are not required to post a transfer student policy, do not have to provide an application form, and do not need to advertise a cutoff date for applying.
WLCSC has a transfer agreement with the Tippecanoe School Corporation (TSC) that allows the WL superintendent to determine if a particular TSC student will be allowed to transfer in and if transfer tuition will be charged. TSC parents are told to contact the WLCSC superintendent if they are interested in transferring and he will make a decision. In addition, teachers and staff who live outside the West Lafayette district are permitted to transfer their children into the school district and are not charged transfer tuition.
The map below reports the number of “other transfer” students leaving each district. Most of the transfer students leaving TSC transfer into WLCSC. The map makes it clear that the West Lafayette school district is using the special transfer agreement process to a much greater extent than any other school districts in the state. There are other districts with larger transfer student populations, but these other school districts accept transfer students following clear transfer policies through the open enrollment process. West Lafayette is one of the only districts in the state to use the less-transparent transfer agreement process.
So, why does this special transfer agreement process matter? I see two issues:
- In our school district, it is the superintendent alone who decides if a student will or will not be accepted as a transfer student with no rules to govern his choice. This means that the parents of current and potential transfer students had to be careful to stay in the superintendent’s good graces or they risk being told that the school no longer has capacity to accept their transfer student. This type of unilateral power is easily abused.
- If a student is accepted as a transfer student, the superintendent alone decides if transfer tuition will be charged and how that transfer tuition is spent. The prior superintendent, Dr. Killion, appears to have had transfer tuition deposited into a school cash account (fund 2070) called “Promotion of Schools/RATM” and this money was used at his discretion rather than being deposited into the education fund to pay teachers or into the operations fund to keep the schools running.
The promotion of schools account (often called the “PR account”) seemed like a strange place for depositing transfer student tuition, so I submitted a public records request for the 2019 transactions, to see what the money was used for. Most of the PR account transactions are just monthly payments on two credit cards, so I also requested the statements for two months in 2019 for those two credit cards. These documents are available for you to download here: 2019 PR Account Transactions, 2019-April Credit Card Transactions, and 2019-October Credit Card Transactions. I picked those months because I learned from an earlier school document request of the March 2019 personal report that Dr. Killion had used school funds to go on a trip to London in October 2019 and that he had made the travel arrangements in April 2019. I wanted to see how much he spent and if these expenditures were paid out of the PR account. They were.
The PR account transactions show that the transfer student tuition was used to pay for: “London Trip,” “Construction Trip,” “Construction Project Fundraising Travel,” “Consultant Travel,” “Apple Order,” “Luncheons,” “Business Meetings,” and “School Board Travel.” The April 2019 credit card statement shows $14,837 in payments to a travel agency for what seems to be the trip to London, though the destination is redacted. There are also charges for a couple of thousand-dollar meals and several hotel rooms in Philadelphia that appear to be part of a trip for school board members. The October 2019 credit card statement shows a large number of transactions that occurred in London. It also shows a charge for a flight to San Francisco. Both of the credit card statements have a variety of other miscellaneous expenses.
The documents show that tuition payments from transfer students directed into this “PR account” were used to purchase airline tickets for the superintendent and others to travel to London in the same month that the school board voted to reduce costs by firing all first-year teachers at WLIS and WLES. Was the school board just not paying attention to what the superintendent was doing with transfer student tuition payments? No, in fact the school board voted to approve using these school funds to pay for the London trip at the March 2019 meeting (see the Personnel Report – Revised item F) but kept it quiet by never speaking about the London trip during the meeting and then redacting the reference to it from the document posted to the school website (see the public version of the Personnel Report). I found confirmation and some additional details in the WL Education Foundation minutes from March 2019 which report that Schott said that the school board had approved paying for 5 or 6 people to travel to London to attend a concert at the Royal Albert Hall where a member of the Kelly family was performing as part of the celebration of the construction of the Bob Kelly Performing Arts Center at the Jr/Sr HS (see foundation minutes, item IV, B).
Facebook has some photos of the group that traveled on this London trip which show the superintendent, high school principal, school board president, WLIS nurse, and others before departing on the trip and at the concert in London.
Deciding how many transfer students to accept shouldn’t be a decision that is tied to superintendent and school board member travel expenses. Our school district needs a well-thought-out transfer student policy that is clearly communicated to school administrators, the families of potential transfer students, and the community.
[9/21/22 – Update]
I apologize for the insensitive comment about property values above. I’d like to add some additional detail to hopefully clarify my views:
First, giving complete discretion to the superintendent to select which students to allow to transfer into our school district has been a direct source of racial and economic discrimination. I know several parents who unsuccessfully tried to transfer their children into the district and they believe that their rejection was based on income, race, or their status as an “outsider.” My view is that the school board needs to set a clear transfer student policy to end this source of discrimination. This isn’t the first time I’ve brought this issue to the school board. They have been unwilling to touch it.
Our schools have some of the best rankings in the state, but on measures of student equity, we are below average. In the school rankings displayed on zillow.com, the Jr/Sr HS is rated a 3 out of 10 on student equity with the comment that “low-income and underserved students at this school may be falling far behind other students in the state” as well as a claim that the Jr/Sr HS has a large racial achievement gap. WLES and WLIS are not doing any better in these rankings. My view is that the most important purpose of taxpayer-supported public education is to ensure that children from disadvantaged backgrounds have the support they need to be successful. This requires school leaders who are willing to address the challenges and barriers these disadvantaged students face. Public schools that only help advantaged students succeed are just acting like private schools.
Second, I do think that school finances should be an important consideration when the school board sets a transfer student policy. The state education funding that follows a transfer student plus the transfer student tuition is less than the school spending per student in our district. So, if we have excess capacity in a particular grade, accepting tuition-paying students is wonderful. However, building additional classrooms to fill with transfer students would be a money-losing plan. In addition, the resulting drop in property tax revenue from such a plan would make our school debt situation even worse.
Last, I 100% support teachers being able to transfer their children into our district. Teachers have not and should not pay any transfer student tuition. I also fully support the after-school bus routes that allow teachers’ children to take the bus from one school to another (some of my own kids used these bus routes when I was teaching). My view is that a greater fraction of the overall school budget should be directed towards our teachers. Engaged and effective teachers are so much more important to the future success of our students than having fancy-looking buildings.
One more thing – I don’t understand how anyone could think it is acceptable to divert transfer student tuition into a slush fund to be used for superintendent and school board travel and other spending that they want to keep hidden. It turns out that during that time period, Witt was the only school board member provided with the credit card transactions and it was her role to review them on behalf of the rest of the board members (she comments about this in her notes in the General Business Section). Having only one set of eyes reviewing credit card spending is another example of a lack of internal financial controls that explain why our school corporation has had so many financial issues. We need an outside auditor to come in and answer the questions about recent school spending as a step towards regaining trust.