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RCS implements tuition

For current Russellville students who reside outside the school district limits, the coming academic year will see an end to bus transportation and, for many of them, a tuition requirement to continue attendance.

For Russellville City Schools, the policy approved at last week’s school board meeting ultimately breaks down to simple dollars and cents. “It was a challenging decision, but it also makes absolute business sense for our school system,” explained Superintendent Heath Grimes. “We spend $1,750 of local money for every student in the school system. That money has to come from somewhere.”

For in-district students, that “somewhere” is ad valorem (property) taxes and other taxes. For out-of-district students, that “somewhere” will be partially addressed by the new policy.

The new policy features two main points: one, that school buses will no longer run any routes outside the city school district, which correlates with the city limits; and two, that all students attend RCS from outside the district will have to pay $600 per year in tuition.

Roughly 900 of RCS’ 2,700 students live outside the city school district. Approximately 400 of those students have, to this point, been riding the bus to school. According to Grimes, the history of the issue stems from when Franklin County Schools ran the Russellville City Schools buses. When RCS took over the operation of its own bus routes, the system made an agreement with the county not to change the bus routes for five years.

Those five years are up.

“We’re probably the only school system in the state that transports students outside our district,” Grimes said. With a looming need to purchase two or three new school buses, Grimes said ending the out-of-district bus routes was a straightforward solution.

Grimes said the system anticipates the likelihood that the 400 students who are currently bussed in from out-of-district will enroll in the county schools where they are zoned. But of the remaining 500 students who already provide their own transportation – about half of whom will be grandfathered, in regards to the tuition policy – the school board expects to retain 80-90 percent.

The new policy, then, is expected to help address overcrowding in the school system as well as budgetary concerns.

“We’re still spending more per student than what they’re paying in, but we wanted to make it affordable,” Grimes said. “I was afraid if we charged the full $1,750, we would lose students we didn’t want to lose.”

Of course, whether an extra $600 – per students, per year – is actually affordable is a matter of perspective, but Grimes said the board hopes people will see the value in the quality of RCS education and feel, as he does, that the tuition is worth it.

“Everybody is guaranteed a free public education – in the school system in which they reside,” Grimes pointed out. “We had to make a financial decision … To those people who are paying their taxes, who live in Russellville City, who have students here, who are maybe having to leave, who feel uncomfortable because of the crowding – we want to say to those parents, we value the people who are living here and paying the taxes over those who aren’t.”

The school board cited overcrowding – and the inability to quickly find more space – as a strong contributing factor to the policy.

“If we built the buildings right now that we needed to house our students for the next five years, we would have to do an addition at West Elementary, Russellville High School and Russellville Middle School, and that construction should have started two years ago,” Grimes said. He said it would cost $9 million at a bare minimum just to provide space needed – closer to $20 million for true quality facilities.

Current out-of-district students entering 8th through 12th grades will be grandfathered in – they will not have to pay tuition, but they will not receive transportation.

In addition to the new tuition requirements, disciplinary problems, academic performance and attendance record could be contributing factors in an out-of-district student’s admissibility.

“What we’re trying to do is make sure we uphold the reputation of excellence we’ve always had,” Grimes said. “We want to show that Russellville City Schools values academics, attendance and discipline.” Students who exhibit adherence to putting forth an effort in academics, having good attendance and not having disciplinary problems “are the students we will accept from outside the district,” Grimes said. “The ones who are not putting forth any effort – those could be culled from our district.”

But Grimes said generally speaking, there is intention to accept every student who can make tuition and transportation requirements. “If they’re willing to pay the tuition and they can provide their own transportation, we welcome every student back.”

“I think the people in Russellville City are going to be pleased with this,” Grimes added. “We are setting higher standards for Russellville City Schools. That’s what Russellville is about. We want to continue that. Any time we are setting higher standards for our students, I don’t think anyone is going to push back on that, inside the city limits.”

Outside the city limits, of course, is a different story. Feedback came in quickly after the policy was approved last week, and not all of it was positive. On the Franklin County Times’ Facebook page, citizens and parents shared their concerns.

“I live literally a mile outside of the city limits, and the closest county school is 20 minutes away,” said Ashley Bates-Hallmark. “Also I have two children that will be grandfathered in but my third and fourth won’t be. Anyone already enrolled or with siblings already enrolled should not have to pay a fee. How many people next year will have kids in different schools because they can’t afford it?”

“What gets me is the people that are going to be affected by this had no knowledge that this meeting was even taking place. I want my kids to go to Russellville, but I sure can’t afford $600 per kid a year plus having to drive them every day,” said BobbyandRose Jones.

“I understand why it needs to happen, but that is a lot of moola when you live just a couple miles out of the city limit,”

Fauna Sparrow Stevens added.

Other commenters were in favor of the policy.

“I’ve been waiting for RCS to do this for years. I’ve always said they would be better off,” said Lucas Alan Shepherd.

By midday Friday, the Franklin County Times’ link had been shared 109 times on Facebook.

Parents outside the district aren’t the only one with concerns about the tuition policy. Franklin County Schools Superintendent Gary Williams said he was “blindsided” when Grimes notified him the board would be approving the policy.

“I would have appreciated the opportunity to work with Russellville City Schools to work out a plan because it affects us so much,” Williams said. “We’re going to have anywhere from 300-400 students we have to provide for. That means more classroom space, more buses to run, more teacher units. At this point, we’re not prepared for that. I believe there would have been some ways to make things easier for us.”

Williams said the school system is going to have to move quickly and likely bring in some mobile units to accommodate the influx of new students. He said the system will try to give incoming students an option of schools, primarily Tharptown, Belgreen or Phil Campbell – the latter two of which, he said, have less crowding.

Williams said he respected RCS’ need to do what was best for the school system but would have liked more input into the transition.

“They’re dong what they think they need to do … I have no problem with that,” he said. “I just wish we could have worked out some procedures and it not been so soon.”

But the die is cast, and the new requirements are in place for the coming school year. Grimes said RCS will be disseminating more information in the coming weeks and months; a letter went home to parents Monday.

Ultimately, Grimes said, “as we’ve seen growth in the number of students attending Russellville City Schools, that makes this decision necessary.”

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