To the Richmond County School Board, the message from the public was resounding.
At a June 18 public input session, the vast majority of citizens voiced their opposition to a tuition recommendation for students who attend Richmond County schools but are not county residents.
Last month, Superintendent Dr. Greg Smith, following the direction of the school board, proposed that families of non-resident students pay a fee of $588 for the 2013-14 school year.
“The onus is placed upon me to comply with the request of the board,” Smith said. “The board, I feel, is responding to the suggestions and to the public voices that say we need to look at a student fee.”
The formula through which Smith arrived at the tuition was based on the median valued home’s contribution towards the school budget in Richmond County, which was estimated at $155,200.
Based on information provided by RCPS, the school division’s projected average cost per pupil in fiscal year 2014 is $11,218, including $4,659 for the local contribution per student.
Smith’s proposal clashed with previous recommendations from the Non-Resident Student Committee (NRSC).
“The majority of the committee members felt strongly that a tuition fee is not warranted and [they] did not recommend it,” said Smith.
Gordon Tolson, currently a member of the NRSC as well as a former school board member, said at the public hearing that the county should give students what they need as opposed to taking privileges away from them.
“If some of them are out-of-county or whatever, if they’re willing to [make the] sacrifice to come to Richmond County schools because we have that great of a school system, then let them come,” said Tolson.
He added that Richmond County should stop fighting over things that “don’t make sense.”
“For 83 years, we’ve had this going like it is,” said Tolson. “Let’s keep it like it is and stop changing and doing things that deter our students, [because] when the students see us fighting, they’re like, ‘Okay, that’s another thing we won’t get in Richmond County.’”
Retired teacher Debra Mitchell said the state funding that Richmond County Public Schools (RCPS) received for pupils’ Average Daily Membership (ADM) would cover the cost of non-resident students’ attendance.
Cindy Hayes, an out-of-county resident whose children will be the fourth-generation attendees to have attended Richmond County schools in her family, agreed with Mitchell.
“These students generate state and federal dollars that would not be allocated to the schools if they were not enrolled,” Hayes said, adding that the school board consider the recommendations of the NRSC to allow the students in question to attend without tuition.
Cindy Talcott, who first told the school board a year ago that excluding non-resident students would be a loss to RCPS, concurred with Hayes, calling the committee’s proposals “reasonable.”
“I do not see the need to charge tuition in a public school system that only benefits from out-of-county residents,” said Cindy. “Public education is about inclusion, not exclusion.”
Cindy also echoed Dist. 5 School Board Member Ken Blackley’s sentiment that it was time to stop calling non-resident attendees “border students” and “out-of-county students.”
“They are Richmond County students, plain and simple,” said Cindy.
Russ Talcott said that educating a small number of border students at RCPS would not cost the county any additional funds.
“In fact, bringing in these hypothetical additional students up to the limits defined in the proposed policy will actually decrease the county’s cost,” Russ said. “The marginal increases in actual expenditures will be more than offset by the increases in federal funding.”
Russ added that allowing the continued enrollment of out-of-county students would most likely positively impact the student body of RCPS.
“They will be the children of parents who care enough about their children’s education to make the extra effort needed to send their kids to another county,” Russ said. “The current border students and their parents offer an excellent example of that.”
“Virginia Fitch, a 12-year substitute teacher at RCPS, called border students an “asset to our school system.”
“They’re usually generally well-behaved young people whose aim is a good education,” said Fitch.
Out-of-county resident Terry Suthard shared her concern that a tuition charge may result in the decrease of volunteer efforts from the parents of border students at RCPS functions.
“They’re going to feel like, ‘Why should I volunteer if I already gave you money? You don’t really need any of my time,’” said Suthard. “If my grandson was charged, I don’t know. I don’t know if I’d continue to do as much as I do.”
Also vocally opposing the recommended fee for out-of-county students at the meeting were Lori Self, Sharon Parr, Harry Smith and Terri Bunch.
Kathy Clarke spoke on behalf of several citizens expressing their appreciation for the school board’s research into the issue while noting that they opposed a fee for non-resident students.
Clarke then asked for those who were against the tuition recommendation to raise their hands, with most of the citizens in the room doing so.
One citizen who did not raise his hand, William Clements, explained his reasons for abstaining.
“I don’t have a problem with some tuition,” said Clements. “I almost feel like, in a sense…these students that we’re referring to…wouldn’t be subject to the criticism that has been put forward.”
Edna Rogers said her only concern regarding border students was having so many of them that the teachers were overburdened.
Kirwan King, who also served on the NRSC, emphasized that the schools be sized in terms of buildings and staffing for the county’s needs before opening capacity to out-of-county students.
“I think it’s absolutely critical that we budget for a school that is designed for Richmond County,” said King.
While a majority of the attendees opposed the tuition, they favored the policy that would not allow the attendance of non-resident students who had discipline incidents and/or legal charges held against them, nor would it permit the attendance of pupils who required special services unless RCPS was compensated for the cost of those services by the sending locality.
The policy also said that RCPS could at any time terminate an agreement with a family of a border student should that child prove disruptive or experience problems with discipline or attendance.
Dist. 2 School Board Member and Chairman John Brown said they would consider, study and use the citizens’ comments from the public hearing in rendering a decision on the issue.
It is anticipated that a decision will be made Wednesday, July 10 at 7 p.m. in the Richmond County public meeting room.