Parents pick up children from Portville Elementary School

Parents pick up their children outside Portville Elementary School last fall. More than 20% of Portville Central School District students are nonresident students living outside the district.

Local families continue to enroll their children in school districts outside the district they live in at some of the highest rates in New York state.

Just over 5% of students attending public school districts in Cattaraugus and Allegany counties did not live in the district they attended and were instead enrolled as nonresident students during the last two school years, according to New York State Education Department data obtained by the Olean Times Herald via a Freedom of Information Law request.

Allegany County (5.4%) and Cattaraugus County’s (4.9%) nonresident student percentages ranked first and second, respectively, in Western New York during both of the last two years, as well as second and third, respectively, in all of Upstate New York.

This continued the trend from the 2016-17 school year, which the Times Herald reported on last fall in its education series, “The state of New York rural schools: Left behind.”

“In urban areas, kids have dozens of high schools they can choose from,” said Portville Central School District Superintendent Tom Simon. “I think in a rural environment the ability for kids to have some mobility is a good thing. … There is a kind of openness to mobility by many of the districts in the region.”

It’s a topic that seems to be getting more interest from local districts. Superintendent Tony Giannicchi said his Allegany-Limestone Central School District is now “digging into” nonresidents to determine where its local students are choosing to enroll.

“It’s super interesting because you know where your own (nonresidents) come from, but you don’t know if your residents are somewhere else,” he said. “You’re always trying to figure out where kids are going, and is there a reason why they’re going.”

Many local students chose Simon’s Portville district and the Ellicottville Central School District, which continued to lead the region in nonresident students.

More than 20 percent of Portville’s approximately 960 students lived outside the district the last two school years, while nearly 30 percent of Ellicottville’s approximately 600 students lived outside the district. Those were by far the highest percentages in the region.

Asked why so many families choose Portville, Simon said he wants to believe it’s because its a “relatively small” district with “big opportunities,” such as its Envisioneering Center and dual enrollment classes via Syracuse University.

“Parents talk,” added Ellicottville Superintendent Bob Miller, “and if a friend had kids go to school here and they say, ‘Hey, Ellicottville offers this program,’ a parent might say, ‘Yeah, I’d like my kid to go there because I want my kid to do that particular program.’”

“We might be smaller than some schools, and that’s attractive,” he continued. “Other times we might just be a little bit bigger and can offer a different opportunity.”

Portville and Ellicottville continued to get most of their nonresident students from their larger, city school district neighbors.

Portville enrolled 106 students who lived in the Olean City School District in the 2017-18 school year. That increased to 120 this past school year. Ellicottville admitted approximately 90 from the Salamanca City Central School District during both of the last two years

As was the case in 2016-17, these were the two single biggest migrations between two districts in the two-county area.

Asked why students living in his district opt to enroll elsewhere, Salamanca Superintendent Robert Breidenstein said he was unavailable for comment, while Olean Superintendent Rick Moore submitted a statement in which he said some families are scared off by Olean’s “demanding” academics, “competitive” extracurriculars and “diverse population.”

“The Olean City School District’s faculty and staff, administrators, Board of Education, and community make no apologies for stressing quality and diversity,” Moore said. “If there are students and families that find this uncomfortable we are willing to offer them support, but we also respect their parental right to select (a) smaller district if they feel that is an appropriate fit.”

Olean had the third-highest non-white student population in the two-county area with 19%, according to the most recent state data; Salamanca had the highest with 48%.

After Olean, Ellicottville and the Randolph Central School District had the highest non-white populations with 11%.

Conversely, Moore said it’s common for “highly successful professionals in our region with a broad worldview” to send their children to Olean. The district brought in 51 nonresidents two years ago and 38 this past school year, which accounted for roughly 2% of its total student body.

Moore also noted recent Olean graduates have gone on to Ivy League universities like Princeton and Cornell, as well as the U.S Naval Academy.

Still, as the second-largest district in the two-county area with an enrollment of 1,900 students, Olean loses more students than any other local district. One hundred and fifty-two students living in Olean enrolled elsewhere two years ago, and 172 students did so last school year.

This prompted some Olean school board members to suggest conducting exit interviews with departing students and even lower the district’s nonresident tuition to attract more nonresidents of their own.

Board member Paul Hessney’s proposal to eliminate Olean’s $400-$700 nonresident tuition all together was barred from being voted on in April because of a procedural issue.

Districts like Olean, Portville and Ellicottville charge nonresidents a few hundred dollars, while others, like the Hinsdale Central School District, don’t charge anything.

Allegany-Limestone charges the maximum amount possible under an individualized state formula, which for them comes out to between $2,000 and $3,000 depending on grade level.

Giannicchi said charging the max ensures districts aren’t putting an extra burden on taxpayers, but also acknowledged high tuition is likely why his district had only eight and 16 nonresidents, respectively, the last two years.

“When it comes down to it, you got to be fair to taxpayers,” he said.

Portville and Ellicottville argue they’re not hurting taxpayers by charging far less than the max, saying nonresidents fit into existing classes and bring in foundation aid just as resident students do. Foundation aid accounts for about 70% of all state aid.

Simon said nonresidents’ foundation aid can cover hiring an additional Portville teacher, while Miller said Ellicottville’s policy mandates it won’t accept a nonresident if it means hiring additional staff.

Both said their districts sometimes turn away nonresidents if it means needing to hire another teacher.

“We’ve had waiting lists the past few years to get into certain (grade levels),” Miller said.

Both superintendents agreed it’s possible they could change their nonresident students policies in the future.

“There could be a day when that no longer becomes sustainable,” Simon said. “If our nonresident numbers get too high and we have to cut programs or add substantial staff, then obviously we’re going to have to make some changes.”

Simon said he hopes there’s no animosity between school districts. He once helped propose a regional high school model that would allow local students to take courses at Portville, Olean, Allegany-Limestone and Hinsdale — regardless of their home district.

“So we’re all willing to say, ‘Gee, we could offer things that you couldn’t offer that could be of great benefit,’” Simon said. “We do all offer things in slightly different ways, slightly different environments, and for some kids it works better than in another.”

(Contact reporter Tom Dinki at tdinki@oleantimesherald.com. Follow him on Twitter, @tomdinki)

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