Beginning next school year, school capacity and class size will be a more significant factor in determine if student boundary exceptions will be approved.
Class sizes at many of Harford County’s public schools increased dramatically this year as 84.5 teaching positions were eliminated to close the school system’s $35 million budget gap.
Caps were put on classes at the elementary level — 25 in kindergarten and first and second grades and 30 in third, fourth and fifth grades — and middle and high school.
“The capacity of a school is something we need to be mindful of. Children in these classes are impacted by the size of the classes,” Buck Hennigan, executive director of student support services, told member of the Harford County Board of Education at their meeting Monday. “There will be significant attention paid to class capacity as well as school capacity, that will be for school employees as well.”
The school system is making a number of changes to its procedure for boundary exceptions, which are granted for a handful of reasons. They will go into effect beginning March 1, the first day applications for the exceptions can be submitted to the school system for the following school year.
A boundary exception allows students to attend a school for which they are not “geographically zoned,” Hennigan said.
“They allow flexibility, because there are certain situations that create a need for a child to go to a school that’s not the one for which they’re zoned,” he said.
About 2,000 boundary exception applications are submitted annually, and the number approved by the school system has been declining slowly since the 2016-2017 school year, when 1,737 were approved and 227 were denied by the school system. Of those denied, 54 were approved on appeal and 66 were denied on appeal, Hennigan said.
In 2017-2018, 1,668 were approved, 211 denied, 40 approved on appeal and 89 denied on appeal, and in 2018-2019, 1,447 were approved, 225 were denied, 39 were approved on appeal and 110 were denied on appeal.
So far this school year, 1,131 boundary exceptions have been approved, 232 denied, 41 approved on appeal and 83 denied on appeal. Those figures are not final, because the school system reviews and decides on boundary exceptions throughout the school year.
In spring 2017, the school system revised its reasons for granting boundary exceptions, which include curriculum — a class or program offered at another school that’s not available at a student’s current school, child care, hardship, children of Harford public school employees, moving during the school year and continuity.
Continuity applies to students entering fifth, eighth and 12th grades who have been at a school and “we want to let them finish,” Hennigan said. Similarly, students who move during the school year can finish out the year at the school they have been in.
The school system is making several changes to its policy. Among them is that parents or guardians will not have to apply for the same boundary exception every year, only when the student moves from one level to another — elementary to middle school or middle to high school, Hennigan said.
Under the existing system, parents could potentially have to submit virtually the same application 13 times between kindergarten and 12th grade. Rolling over the exception until a student changes from elementary to middle or middle to high is not only easier for parents, it’s also more efficient.
“I figure we can save 10,000 to 20,000 hours of work, of people typing in thousands of applications, reading thousands of applications, deciding on thousands of applications,” Hennigan said. There is also a financial piece in the amount of paper and postage that is saved.
Special arrangements will no longer be made to provide transportation to students who receive a boundary exception. This will eliminate staff trying to decide if buses are full, what buses have capacity and contacting parents to let them know their students will have transportation.
Boundary exceptions were previously limited to children of full-time employees who were part of a bargaining unit or who worked in the central office, Hennigan said. Under the new procedure, a part-time employee who is part of a bargaining unit may apply for an exception for their child.
In rare cases, students’ boundary exceptions can be revoked if they are repeatedly suspended. Under the existing policy, a student’s exception will be reconsidered if he or she is suspended more than three times; under the new policy the exception will be reviewed after two suspensions.
“For a child in a school for which they are not zoned, grades, attendance and behavior become a factor in their ability to stay in that school,” Hennigan said.