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School board makes an exception to open enrollment ‘glitch’

Newton families share their experiences after process was not followed

Faculty of Woodrow Wilson Elementary School take turns escorting students to their respective classrooms. On Monday, Oct. 11, two families shared their experiences trying to deal with an open enrollment error during the open forum session of the Newton Community School District Board of Education meeting.
Faculty of Woodrow Wilson Elementary School take turns escorting students to their respective classrooms. On Monday, Oct. 11, two families shared their experiences trying to deal with an open enrollment error during the open forum session of the Newton Community School District Board of Education meeting.

With tears in her eyes, Emily Nye pleaded the Newton School Board to accept her late open enrollment request to the Prairie City-Monroe district.

Nye, who has a Newton address, was informed of a paperwork error Sept. 29 regarding her 6-year-old son’s eligibility for open enrollment. Even though her son had completed kindergarten at Monroe Elementary School the year prior, Nye needed to resubmit her paperwork by Oct. 1. She had two days.

For a mother whose work schedule as a nurse sometimes requires her to work late shifts, this was a difficult task for her to find out why this had become a problem, let alone her trying to communicate with school district staff in Newton and PCM. To her knowledge, she had done everything right.

When her son entered pre-school, Nye registered for open enrollment to the PCM Community School District. She recalled asking PCM staff if she needed to re-register for open enrollment when her son entered kindergarten. Nye was supposedly told they would let her know.

Since she wasn’t contacted and her son had finished one year of schooling under the PCM district, Nye felt everything must have been fine. But the call she received just days before the deadline indicated it was not. She called back and left voice messages, and she sent emails.

“I feel the ball got dropped and someone missed something,” Nye said.

Nye isn’t the only family with open enrollment errors

However, Nye acknowledged she could have been “more proactive,” but also thought it could have been a problem between the previous PCM superintendent and his assistant not noticing. The person who is not at fault, Nye added, is her 6-year-old son, “who loves to go to school.”

A similar story was shared by another person during the open forum session of the Monday, Oct. 12, Newton Community School District Board of Education meeting. In total, about three families had difficulties with open enrollment forms and would have been forced to enter the Newton school district.

In addition to PCM, the other effected open enrollments were to Lynnville-Sully Community School District and Colfax-Mingo Community School District.

Nye said she did not want her son to be enrolled in the Newton school system, preferring a smaller district with smaller class sizes. School board member Donna Cook later wanted to make it clear that smaller districts does not mean small class sizes; regardless, it was clear Nye wanted her son at PCM.

School board member Mark Thayer said the board should respect the fact that there is a global pandemic and that “messages had been mixed.” The two people who presented arguments to the school board also had “good, solid reasoning,” he added.

“Typically, I’m a policy person, but I also understand that everything has been turned upside down the last eight or nine months,” Thayer said, indicating that the board should offer the two families their open enrollment status.

Process was disrupted, impacting students and their families

Cook wanted NCSD Superintendent Tom Messinger to review the “policy or law regarding open enrollments.” Messinger said school boards can approve or deny open enrollments “however they choose to” if they’re not filed in a timely manner. If filed within the timeline, the school cannot deny requests.

“This is a bad situation in which families are caught in the middle, and I don’t want anybody to believe anything different than that,” Messinger said.

Schools are not supposed to enroll any student that does not have an address within the school boundaries, unless those students’ families file an open enrollment request. Outside the timeline, Messinger said the process goes to the receiving district first and then the sending district.

Bret Miller, the NCSD director of teaching and learning, said the Newton school district became aware of the open enrollment situations and was contacted by the outside districts. However, the district had not had board meetings “since that happened.” Messinger noted that is one of the “frustrating” things.

“The process, still, has not been followed, and that does make this difficult because now we do have a situation where students are impacted with it,” Messinger said. “So it’s supposed to be approved by the receiving district … If they approve it, it goes to the sending district.”

Although he doesn’t know all the specifics of this situation, Messinger did say the Newton district was notified “pretty late.”

Open enrollment laws can be rather complex

The open enrollment deadline for kindergarteners this year was Sept. 1, but it was extended to July 15 for the remaining grades, Messinger said.

Heath Doe, communications director at the Iowa Department of Education, said families typically have to re-register open enrollment after their child leaves preschool, but the answer is “more complex” than that.

According to Iowa Code, regular education students are eligible to open enroll for grades kindergarten through grade 12, if the student is 5 years of age on or before Sept. 15. Students who are younger than 5 years old do not qualify, unless they have an instructional Individualized Education Program (IEP).

With an IEP, the student is eligible to be counted for certified enrollment. Parents can enroll their children into any school district that offers a Statewide Voluntary 4-Year-Old Preschool program — even if it isn’t their resident district — without the need to open enroll.

The Iowa Department of Education says regular education students participating in State Voluntary 4-Year-Old Preschool programs must open enroll in a district if the parent or guardian wishes to keep the student enrolled in the district where the student attended preschool.

Board has sympathy but is also worried about setting precedent

These types of open enrollment errors can reflect negatively on a school district. Messinger said the situation gives the Newton school district a “black eye.” Robyn Friedman, president of the NCSD Board of Education, agreed with that sentiment and also sympathized with the families involved.

“This is completely unfortunate and it’s a ‘glitch’ that shouldn’t have happened and shouldn’t have happened in this way,” she said. “I also strongly feel the same way you do, Mark (Thayer) … But I don’t like the precedent that sets.”

Friedman explains that precedent is more directed toward the district side of things, rather than the families. There is “no blame” towards the families effected by this situation, she added. Messinger said no one knows what led to these errors, but the district needs to make sure these don’t happen.

“Not that money is the most important thing, but money is how schools operate,” Messinger said. “We don’t want a process-less system, because then it becomes very difficult.”

This year, the Newton school district has had approximately three open enrollment denials. Miller said there were many “not timely” denials, but those were for students already attending Newton, rather than first-timers.

Cook asked if it would be possible to send a letter to PCM, Colfax-Mingo and Lynnville-Sully on behalf of the board, explaining how the Newton school district does not appreciate their “lack of following what we’re required to do.” Messinger said that could be done.

Votes are in favor of those effected by open enrollment error

School board member Travis Padget agreed with Thayer that it has been an unusual year and would advocate approving the open enrollment requests and sending “a strongly worded letter” to the districts.

Cook said it’s a “Newton tradition to do what’s best for students and their families,” appreciating the two that spoke to the school board to advocate for their children. Cook also reminded board members this situation is an “exception” than setting precedence.

The longtime board member was hesitant to approve all three when only two families visited the board meeting to share their complaints. Padget argued it was OK since the third family’s child is entering kindergarten and has not been a student in the Newton district before.

As a result, a roll call vote of 6-1 from the school board approved the three prior denials’ open enrollment requests. Only NCSD Board of Education Vice-President Cody Muhs voted “no.”

Contact Christopher Braunschweig at 641-792-3121 ext. 6560 or

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