Board tightens down on school variances

By Bruce Sims
Contributing Writer
Posted 6/20/07

For years the granting of a school variance, where a student might live in one district but be allowed to attend school in another, hasn’t been that big of a deal, said JaNay Dawson, an assistant superintendent with the Baldwin County School …

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Board tightens down on school variances


For years the granting of a school variance, where a student might live in one district but be allowed to attend school in another, hasn’t been that big of a deal, said JaNay Dawson, an assistant superintendent with the Baldwin County School System.

“That’s because there was room enough in the schools to accommodate families who wanted their children to attend a school that was close to their workplace,” she said. “Those days, however, are coming to a close as the only variances the principals are to grant are those that are referred to as a ‘hardship cases.’”

The ‘hardship’ category is mostly medical in nature, Dawson said. Students with a health issue are sometimes granted a variance so that their parents might get to them quicker in case a medical situation arose.

“Administrators at the system’s central office noticed that over 2,000 variances had been granted for the 2004-2005 school year,” she said. “With that many variances being granted there was no way the school board could plan for growth as they had no idea where all the students lived.”

In most cases these were not true ‘hardship cases,’ but instead were more a matter of convenience, Dawson added.

Dr. Faron Hollinger, superintendent of the Baldwin County School System, advised the principals that they would need to start cutting back on the number of variances that were granted.

The board gives the superintendent discretionary authority to grant variances to pupils who present evidence of extreme hardship, but the first hurtle, however, is making application and having the principal at the school the student wishes to attend to sign off on the application.

“Extreme hardship doesn’t include dissatisfaction with teachers or administrators at the school where the student resides,” Dawson said. “Nor does it have anything to do with the curriculum, or extracurricular activities, that are or are not offered within their home school district.”

This past year the number of variances was trimmed to 1,002, Dawson said, adding that she felt the figure would continue to shrink as applicants became aware of the guidelines that have been set down by the administrators.

Even if a student has a variance the principal can have it revoked, even if the school year is underway, should the student have chronic absenteeism, becomes a discipline problem within the school, or things of that nature,” she said. “That’s why we encourage those who are applying to read and become familiar with the criteria that are set forth in the guidelines.”

A set of the guidelines come with each variance application.

One of the reasons for the crackdown is because the school has invested heavily in to the planning for new schools and expansions through its’ Geographic Information System Department.

“If you have a school where you had 110 variances for instance, and they all leave and go back to their home school the next year because of a new coach, band director or curriculum offering, then the system would have a major problem,” Dawson said. Because the Alabama State Department of Education bases the number of teaching units on the number of students on roll within the school system the first school might have five extra units, whereas the school the students go back to is now five short.

The school board isn’t going to chase the students from school to school, as too much work is done by the principals and their assistants in preparing the curriculum, as well as the schedules for both the students and teachers for each upcoming year.

“The new policy that has been set down by the board is much stricter than in years past,” Dawson said, “but with the way the county’s population is growing they are making the planning and projections aspect of our system a top priority.”

Lowering the number of variances mean that students will be counted in the area that they live. This in turn will give the system’s planning department the needed data to make their projections with.

“By counting the students where they live, the board feels they will now be able to get a true handle on their planning for future projects,” she said. “That’s why it’s so important that students go to the school in the district where they live.”

Because the State Department of Education has asked that the use of portable classrooms be reduced, the Baldwin County School System will be able to comply by expanding, or even building new schools where they are needed.

“One of the ways the GIS Department will be able to determine, and then recommend such a project to the board, is if they have the kind of data that they need,” Dawson said. “Collecting that data begins with determining where our students reside.”