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Sunday, September 25, 2005

Parents of Smart Kids Told to Pay Up

Parents of smart kid told to pay
Kenton County charges tuition for advancing a grade


CRESCENT SPRINGS - The parents of a 5-year-old girl and the Kenton County School District are battling over a $3,000 tuition bill.

It's a situation caught up in bureaucracy that has left the gifted child's academic future in doubt.

John and Shauna Bomkamp's daughter, Alison, is in first grade at River Ridge Elementary School in Villa Hills.

After she was tested twice last winter at a second-grade level by an independent psychologist and River Ridge, Alison's parents decided to have her skip the school's half-day kindergarten this year and start first grade.

She was tested once more during the summer by the district, which told the Bomkamps if Alison qualified to skip kindergarten, there would be a $3,000 tuition bill to place her in a higher grade. Alison passed the test.

"We agreed to have her tested, but we did not agree on the tuition," John Bomkamp said.

Why a $3,000 tuition bill for a public school?

That's about half of what it costs to educate a child in Kenton County for a year, according to Superintendent Susan Cook. But the state only funds districts for half-day kindergarten.

And a 20-year-old attorney general's opinion of the state's primary school program law says if a child "would not be 6 years old until after Oct. 1 (as is Alison's case), the child would be eligible to enroll only in a public school's kindergarten program rather than first grade."

So Alison is attending first grade for a full day, but only half of her education is paid by the state.

"The district is following state statute," said Lisa Gross, spokeswoman for the Kentucky Department of Education. "The law does not give a district flexibility on how a child tests. It's age-specific."

The district appealed to the state board of education, asking for a waiver for Alison. State Sen. Jack Westwood also fought on the family's behalf, but the board denied the request in August.

"One reason the waiver was refused was because it's state law," Gross said. "And because they didn't want to set a precedent."

Westwood said he's not buying the precedent argument.

"I don't think that many kids will test at a higher level each year," Westwood said. "There has to be thinking of what can we do to help this child get the best education."

The Bomkamps say the district has already set a precedent by offering free full-day kindergarten at two of its schools - Piner and Ryland. Cook said it does that because of the location of the schools and because many of the students are classified as at-risk.

State Rep. Harry Moberly, D-Richmond, wrote amendments to the primary school program law in the 1990s and said the attorney general's interpretation was wrong.

He said the Bomkamps should not pay the bill and should hire a lawyer if necessary.

"I don't think they need a waiver," Moberly said. "The tuition is absolutely ridiculous. The law says kids have to be continually evaluated and regrouped in their best interest. The issue is, once enrolled, what are her needs?"

Cook said the district could meet Alison's needs by differentiating her instruction. For example, she could take second-grade reading while in kindergarten. The Bomkamps and Westwood say the district cannot meet all her needs in a half-day.

The family got the bill Sept. 17, about a month after Alison settled into her first-grade class.

Cook said it will probably take a change in the law for the district not to charge the Bomkamps. Moberly said he may look at doing that at the 2006 General Assembly.

But what happens now?

The first tuition installment is due Friday. Cook said she has a paper signed by the Bomkamps before the district tested Alison that says they agreed to the payment.

The Bomkamps say they questioned the legality of the tuition at that time and made a notation on that paper that the tuition issue was still being discussed.

"I'm going to protect my daughter no matter what," Shauna Bomkamp said. "We will fight it tooth and nail."

Will the district remove Alison from first grade if the bill is not paid?

"I would hope that we could work with the family to come to some agreement," Cook said.