Parents face a tougher scrutiny than ever before this year when they register their children at Pine Grove Elementary.
Principal Dave Dannemiller has instructed his staff to see proof of residency _ no verbal assurances allowed _ and to check addresses against attendance zone maps for everyone who comes in. A sign on the counter makes the reason clear: "Due to the overcrowding of Pine Grove Elementary, new out-of-zone applicants for the 2003-04 school year will be denied."
That even goes for the younger siblings of children already attending the school from outside its zone. Vigilance is critical to keep enrollment controlled at Hernando County's largest elementary school, which is adding portable classrooms to keep up with growth.
"We need to have good verification that they're (supposed to attend) here," Dannemiller said. "The first responsibility we have is for the children in our zone."
The same holds true at every crowded school in the district, superintendent Wendy Tellone said. Several have posted the same sign that's on Pine Grove's front desk. But in the past, she said, many principals have been "so compassionate about this" that it has become a problem.
That's why Tellone recommended, and the School Board approved, requiring annual applications for all out-of-zone transfer students. Ostensibly, this part of the district's revised controlled-choice plan is to help better track students who have special attendance permits.
But in reality, Tellone acknowledged, the policy also is to alert parents that the ability to send children to a school outside their own attendance zone is not guaranteed from year to year. As schools exceed their stated capacities, she said, principals have the right to turn away families assigned elsewhere _ an unpopular practice that's rarely used now.
"Schools are packed, and at some point you're going to have to say, "No, we can't take any more,' " student services director Jim Knight said.
Before long, Knight said, the only real choice parents will have will be in the county's magnet schools.
"But as far as choice overall, no, we're not going to have a lot of choice," he said.
As of Wednesday, Hernando schools had enrolled 365 in-county transfers, 60 children from Pasco County and three children from Citrus County. The district also sent 151 students to Pasco schools, eight to Hillsborough County, two to Pinellas and one to Citrus.
The numbers are down from past years, Knight said, as some school leaders have cracked down.
Central and Springstead high schools, for instance, went so far as to make sure children of employees actually were their sons and daughters, not grandchildren, nieces or nephews, he said. Several principals have told families that move out of their zones that they cannot remain in the school to complete the academic year.
Powell Middle School principal Michael Ransaw, who has raised concerns about hundreds of apartments and new homes rising in his attendance zone, has allowed transfers already approved by former principal Cy Wingrove. But Ransaw has told the parents that the transfer comes without strings attached for the next school year, Knight said.
Board member Robert Wiggins applauded the new policy. During the county's aborted discussion about redrawing attendance boundaries, which automatically would have revoked all special transfers, Wiggins advocated removing out-of-zone students from schools before forcing out children living in the zone.
"People need to be aware that when they elect to go to an out-of-zone school, they are taking a chance," Wiggins said. "We would hope their children could attend for all five years. . . . (But) if we want to reduce overcrowding at a school, the first step should be to eliminate out-of-zone attendance at a school."
Board member Jim Malcolm voted for the policy change but said later that he opposed the measure if it were to be used to oust out-of-zone students from their schools.
"That would be chaotic if you have a youngster who one year goes and the next year doesn't go and the next year goes," Malcolm said. "I'm not in favor of that."
He said he had focused on other provisions while reviewing the policy, and he did not notice the annual application section of the proposal. During board conversation, he talked only about the rules governing magnet schools, making sure that application by audition and portfolio is allowed.
The board adopted his recommendation.
Other items added to the policy included: an ability to revoke a choice transfer for students that do not maintain good grades, attendance or behavior; permission for parents to object to busing for desegregation purposes; and the addition of a Hardship Committee for parents to turn to if their reassignment request is denied.
The policy also added a section to recognize the state McKay Scholarship program for students with disabilities.
_ Jeffrey S. Solochek covers education and politics in Hernando County. He can be reached at (352) 754-6115 or solocheksptimes.com.