Kingsport, Sullivan school officials begin enrollment guessing game

Rick Wagner • Jan 18, 2009 at 12:00 AM

Now that a Rock Springs annexation lawsuit has ended, Kingsport and Sullivan County school officials need to know where students living in the affected area plan to attend school this fall.

A group of residents earlier this month agreed to withdraw their lawsuit — a consolidation of six lawsuits — challenging the annexation done under the Tennessee “smart growth” law, known as Public Chapter 1101, of 1999. Four other lawsuits remain but also could be dismissed, since those filers used the same attorneys as the other group.

That — coupled with the fall opening of Kingsport’s new John Adams Elementary School and continued development of a more than 300-home development called “The Edinburgh” — has city school officials calling for parents to apply for out-of-zone and tuition slots they want for their children.

This year’s deadline is March 15, and the county system may make a similar call soon, according to officials there. The city schools form and information on zoning and tuition enrollment are available at http://kcs.k12k.com:80/ for-parents/zoning-and-tuition. Or call 378-2100 for more information or to get a printed copy.

Tyler Fleming, Kingsport City Schools director of student services, said he’s received about 200 applications since the online form was posted Jan. 5, and he expects about 800 total.

The system usually has about 200 tuition students and probably 400 zoning exceptions most years, he said.

Kingsport Superintendent Richard Kitzmiller said the city deadline has been moved up for applications for tuition and zoning variances, not just because of the Rock Springs issue but also because of rezonings elsewhere in the city in existing schools.

“Because we’re rezoning and opening new schools, we need for them to let us know,” Kitzmiller said.

The rezonings, designed to merge the new Adams school into the mix and help equalize enrollments throughout the system, affect about 250 students in the 6,400-student city system.

Those include 120 from Cooks Valley being shifted from Jefferson Elementary to Johnson Elementary. Students also are affected at Jackson and Roosevelt elementary schools, as well as a few being shifted from Robinson Middle to Sevier Middle.

The issue for in-city students wanting to go to a school for which they are not zoned is complicated by a Sullivan County policy allowing annexed students to remain in the county system or go to the city system.

“They could go either place,” explained Sullivan County Director of Schools Jack Barnes, who heads a 12,000-student system.

The entire Rock Springs area planned for annexation through 2011 has about 436 students, although Fleming said for this fall the change is expected to involve about 30 or 40 elementary students and 20 or 30 middle school students. Fleming said he expects few high school students to switch to the city system.

“We may end up before it’s over asking the same question of these students in the annexed area,” Barnes said. “As close as we’ve done staffing, we need the same information.”

During a Sullivan County Board of Education retreat Wednesday, Barnes asked the school board to consider re-examining its 2006 decision that allows students in areas annexed since then to attend either Kingsport or Sullivan County schools.

Before that, the county policy had been a mixture allowing city students to remain in county schools if they lived in the Lynn Garden area but eventually making them out of zone in other parts of the county.

The 2006 policy applies even to students not yet in school, unborn or yet to move into an annexed area.

“If they’re not already in school, it doesn’t matter,” Barnes said.

Under a gentlemen’s agreement between the two systems, Barnes and Kitzmiller said annexed students generally must spend an entire school year in one system before moving to the other, except for cases of safety or special circumstances.

Lib Sells, who oversees student services for the county school system, said students still can and do go back and forth between South and Dobyns-Bennett.

One problem is that they also can disappear, dropping out, getting a GED, going to another state, or going to a private school or home school.

The issue for D-B and South, as well as other schools, is that they are accountable for those students — and penalized for having a dropout — until they can determine where the student has moved or in what school he or she is enrolled.

Barnes said the solution may be to have those parents apply for the annual lottery for out-of-zone students at each school, although county BOE Chairman Ron Smith said even those who win slots in a lottery can see their students bumped out if in-zone students come after school starts.

Currently, parents of annexed children have only to request to stay in the county system one time on a form, and many don’t notify the system when leaving the system, area or state. The city requires a new application each year.

Another issue is the state has no statewide database to keep up with students being home-schooled or in private schools, county school officials said.

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