May 11, 2018 11:19:30 AM
Palmer Home for Children is petitioning for the foster children in its care to have the option to attend Lowndes County public schools.
But board members for the Columbus Municipal School District -- the home district for those students since Palmer Home is located in the city -- are having none of it.
Lynn Wright, superintendent of LCSD, sent an email this week to Craig Shannon, interim superintendent of CMSD, specifically requesting the city district consider letting 34 of Palmer Home's residents attend county schools. Right now, those 34 students are either home-schooled or attend private schools in the area.
In Wright's email to CMSD, he indicated many of those students would be interested in attending county schools, if they had the choice, for reasons ranging from special services and athletics opportunities to the children's relationships with churches located outside the city.
Palmer Home representatives initially reached out to LCSD requesting its help, Wright said.
CMSD trustees briefly discussed Wright's email during a planning meeting on Wednesday before summarily rejecting the request.
Board president Jason Spears said trustees likely wouldn't even discuss the matter further in their regular meeting Monday.
"The county school district can't send us a long list of students they want us to release into their school," Spears said. "It's against the law."
Spears said CMSD considers students' transfers from their legal districts on an individual basis when petitions are submitted by a child's legal guardian. One problem with the LCSD request, Spears said, is it came to CMSD from Wright rather than from Palmer Home, the legal guardian for those 34 students.
The other problem, Spears added, is if the district begins wholesale allowing groups of students living inside the city special permission to attend county schools, then it sets a dangerous precedent -- saying it could lead to things like homeowner's associations in the city seeking permission for their children to leave the district.
"This could set a precedent for school choice, to where you just have just blanket people coming together and crossing school boundaries," Spears said.
CMSD board attorney David Dunn agreed, and said he had been corresponding with LCSD's board attorney, State Rep. Jeff Smith, on the matter.
Smith, speaking to The Dispatch, harshly criticized CMSD's academic performance in recent years, and said Palmer Home children simply want an opportunity at the best local education options.
"The county is a high B district and the city is a very low D district." Smith said, "So, you know, it doesn't take a genius to figure out that (the students) want to go to what on paper looks like a better district."
He also said Palmer Home's request is very similar to what happened with Columbus Air Force Base in 2010, when both CMSD and LCSD agreed to allow parents living on the base to choose where to send their children to school.
Although the Air Force base is located outside the city limits, a federal court order for years mandated children living there attend city public schools unless they sought private options. Later, a federal court allowed CAFB residents the choice after CMSD and LCSD came to the same agreement.
Smith said the Palmer Home issue could operate similarly.
"We were going to let the kids that resided in a mandatory area go elsewhere. That is the reason they are similar (issues)," Smith said. "It is different because rather than being mandated by a state law, (CAFB) students were mandated to go to a specific district by a federal court order."
Spears, on the other hand, looks at those two instances very differently -- hanging his position entirely on location.
"It's not an apples to apples comparison even though that's the scenario that's being made," Spears said.
As to Jeff Smith's criticism of CMSD, Spears said time heals all wounds.
"We look forward to changing Mr. Smith's view of the district in the coming couple years," Spears said. "Because I know we have hardworking teachers that come in every day to make a difference in each of the children's lives that attend Columbus Municipal School District.
"I'm not sure why Representative Smith would hold such a negative view of the Columbus Municipal School District," he later added in an email to The Dispatch. "We have children, teachers and many other community members who work hard, each day, every day, to be successful. I guess if he draws his conclusion from old information he will be greatly surprised of the success in the coming years at CMSD."
Palmer Home is a private organization that offers housing to children in need, and has been a part of the Columbus community since 1895. It houses approximately 60 children.
Palmer Home attorney Corky Smith, Rep. Jeff Smith's son, said the organization is simply trying to do what it thinks is best for the children -- some of whom are orphans and others who have temporarily been removed from their guardians' care.
"They want to give these children every option and choice that they can because, they do come from multiple states and multiple socio-economic backgrounds," Corky Smith said. "So they just want to have every available option for these children."
The Dispatch could not reach Director Drake Bassett because he was traveling out of town.
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