The Verona Area School District is looking to welcome more students next year through the state’s open enrollment program — just as long as those students don’t have any disabilities.

The Verona school board in January authorized 115 open enrollment spots for general education students — the highest number in a decade — and zero for special education students. “We have not created any spaces for students who have special education services,” Assistant Superintendent Emmett Durtschi told the Verona school board at its Jan. 10 meeting. This has been the case, he added, for the last five years, “at least.”

Jeff Spitzer-Resnick, a disability rights attorney, heard about the decision from Martha Siravo, the reigning Ms. Wheelchair Wisconsin, who sent him a link to a Verona Press article about it. He posted the story on social media and Isthmus decided to dig a little deeper.

“This is nothing but discrimination against students with special needs and students with disabilities,” Spitzer-Resnick says in an interview. “A higher proportion of kids of color are in special education. Now, that’s a whole other issue but it’s a reality at the moment. So Verona is seeking to avoid too many kids of color coming into the district, too.”

When asked for comment by Isthmus, Verona school district spokesperson Marcie Pfeifer-Soderbloom submitted a response by email. She did not refute Durtschi’s comments, but said that “the board’s vote does not determine who may or may not apply for open enrollment.”

“Any student may apply for open enrollment and their application will be reviewed to determine whether the district has available capacity and resources to sufficiently meet the specialized needs of the student,” Pfeifer-Soderbloom said in a March 30 email. “The number and type of seats available for open enrollment in the following school year does not preclude any student from applying for open enrollment and having their application reviewed.”

When asked how many non-resident students with special needs have been accepted through open enrollment in Verona in the past five years, Pfeifer-Soderbloom said “that data is not immediately available.”

Like everything to do with school funding in Wisconsin, the state’s open enrollment program is complicated and controversial. Created by lawmakers in 1997, the state program requires every public school district, in the month of January, to determine how many regular education students and special education students it will accept from outside the district’s boundaries. The number of students a district will accept is set by grade level. Each spring, families can apply for open enrollment with districts outside their community for the following school year. If accepted, the student’s home district is required to pay the student’s new district to educate that child. In 2022, funding that follows a student into a district is estimated to be $8,224 for general education students and $13,076 for students with disabilities (which can increase up to $30,000 in subsequent years).

At the January Verona school board meeting, Durtschi said Verona wasn’t opening slots for students with disabilities because of how open enrollment is funded.

“The cost associated with an average student who has a special education need is much greater than our reimbursement rate,” said Durtschi. “We want to ensure that we have the services necessary for the students who [are] already here.”

But Spitzer-Resnick says that doesn’t add up when Verona is seeking a historic number of regular education students from outside its borders.

“Before any student applies, before the district knows what services they may need to offer to an open enrollment student — which can greatly vary in terms of cost — a Verona administrator is telling his board they don’t have room for kids with disabilities, period,” says Spitzer-Resnick, who notes other districts may also be limiting admission through open enrollment for students with disabilities. “What’s different here is how freakin’ explicit Verona is being about keeping out certain students.”

It’s against state law for students to be denied open enrollment because the child “has a disability or based on the category of the disability.” The Department of Public Instruction referred Isthmus to its website when asked about criteria a district can use to reject an applicant.

“Any open enrollment application may be denied if the nonresident school district does not have space for the pupil,” states DPI’s website. “For a child with a disability, this includes availability of and space in the special education and related services required in the pupil’s individualized education program (IEP).”

According to the Verona district’s latest state report card, students with disabilities make up around eight percent of the total student body in Verona. The statewide average is 14 percent. It used to be legal for districts to deny special education students in the open enrollment program if it would cause an undue financial burden. Spitzer-Resnick says a 2015 law changed that and increased how much funding districts receive when they enroll a non-resident student with disabilities.

“The good news is a lot more children with special needs were able to avail themselves of open enrollment. The bad news is what we see in Verona,” says Spitzer-Resnick. “Districts can subtly, or in this case overtly, make conscious, numerical decisions about which type of students they will have space for in order to deny children with special needs under the ‘we don’t have room’ excuse. To me, that’s still blantant discrimination.”

Under its plan, next fall the Verona school district will have room for 20 kindergarteners from outside the district. It is also opening five slots in each elementary school grade level; 20 slots in sixth grade and 10 at the seventh and eighth grade levels; Verona is also accepting 15 high school freshmen and five students in each of the other high school grade levels. On average since 2016, Verona has accepted 70 non-resident students each year through open enrollment. The district hopes to boost that to 115 students next semester.

“The end result of what Verona is doing is concentrating kids with disabilities into some districts over others. In this case, that probably means the Madison school district,” says Spitzer-Resnick.

Madison school district spokesperson Tim LeMonds tells Isthmus, “we prefer not to comment on the decisions of other school districts.” He also declined to provide information about how many students with disabilities the district gains and loses through open enrollment.

Madison is projecting declining student enrollment in coming years. Open enrollment is just one contributing factor. According to an October report from the Madison school district, more than 1,000 students from Madison are attending school in other districts. Around 500 non-resident students have come into the Madison district. As a result, the Madison school district’s net loss in funding due to open enrollment was more than $7 million in the 2020-21 school year with a similar total expected this year.

In its open enrollment allocation report for the 2022-23 school year, the Madison school district outlines which specialized educational offerings — like its STEM Academy and some programs designed for special education students — are currently full. But it isn’t placing any limit on the number of general education or special education students it will accept.

“That’s why it is a big problem and an equity issue when neighboring districts play games with open enrollment. Madison is doing it by the book and Verona is not,” says Spitzer-Resnick. “The best educational result for everyone is when districts have school populations that reflect their communities. That can’t happen if some school districts exclude kids with special needs to exploit the funding system.”

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