Students who live outside Charleston County but attend public schools here will have to fork over more than $6,500 in tuition beginning next school year.
The need for the change, said School Board Chairwoman Cindy Bohn Coats, is to balance resources and level the playing field with other districts that also charge tuition to outside students.
“I think that there is a value to residents who don’t live in Charleston County and want to come into Charleston to get the quality of education in these schools,” Coats said.
State law permits students who live in other districts to attend school in another county if they own a piece of property there assessed at $300 or more. And it’s those students who will have to pay tuition. Students currently enrolled in the district will be allowed to continue attending Charleston County schools at no charge. New students enrolling for the 2015-16 school year will be required to pay.
And the price tag to attend a Charleston County school for the 2015-16 school year will run $6,537 minus the property taxes paid that are dedicated to the school system. The price is dictated by a formula based on local tax revenue. A student who pays $1,000 in school district taxes would pay $5,537 in tuition.
The Charleston County School Board voted in 2012 to charge out-of-county students tuition starting in the 2013-14 school year, but that date was later pushed back to the 2015-16 school year.
John Emerson, the Charleston County School District’s attorney, said a state law passed in 1996 allows school districts to charge tuition to nonresident students, but that this is the first time the school district is moving forward with a plan to uniformly require the fee.
“It’s a way for us to ensure equitable funding for nonresident students,” Emerson said.
The district began evaluating whether to charge tuition several years ago amid a lawsuit by a former Berkeley County parent who sued Charleston County schools over her daughter’s right to attend Academic Magnet High School by virtue of owning property in the district. The state Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Berkeley student, saying magnet schools must admit non-county students who own property in Charleston County if they meet admissions requirements.
The number of out-of-county students had begun to increase during that time, Emerson said, making it necessary to take a closer look at the issue.
When the School Board voted three years ago to charge tuition, the district estimated there were around 150 students who lived outside of Charleston County but attended the district’s schools. This school year 261 nonresident students are attending Charleston schools, according to the district’s 2014-15 distribution summary for student attendance. Academic Magnet High has the largest number of out-of-county students with 26 students. Wando High in Mount Pleasant has the next highest number with 24.
The problem Charleston has faced is how to serve nonresident students while making sure the needs and access of county students aren’t being impacted. That is especially true at Academic Magnet where 21 students accepted as part of the incoming freshman class currently attend middle schools in Berkeley or Dorchester counties.
“It becomes a concern if the out-of-county student population grows to the point it is excluding students who live in and attend Charleston County schools,” Coats said.
One way the School Board is addressing that issue is by requiring nonresident students to go through the district’s voluntary transfer process. Under a new policy adopted by the board this year, nonresident students will no longer be able to attend county neighborhood schools based on where their property is located. Instead, constituent school boards will approve whether nonresident students can attend neighborhood schools depending on whether the school has room.
The reason for the change, Coats said, is to protect schools from overcrowding.
“When you have capacity and a limited amount of seats, my priority is my kids,” Coats said.
It’s unclear how many school districts in the state require tuition from outside students. Emerson said in an informal survey of 25 districts, 17 charged tuition.
Dorchester District 2 and the Berkeley County School District both charge tuition for nonresident students. Allyson Duke, Dorchester 2’s chief financial officer, said the base tuition for her district is $3,700. Dorchester 2 has two students, Duke said, who live outside the district but own property there and are paying tuition.
Tuition in Berkeley County this school year is $3,467.59. Chip Sturgis, spokesman for Berkeley County schools, said there are no out-of-county students paying tuition to attend Berkeley schools this year.
Scott Price, executive director-elect of the South Carolina School Boards Association, said districts can charge tuition for a variety of reasons from balancing resources to better controlling access to the schools.
“In some instances there might be a control piece, in other instances there might be cost and space components and in some cases it might be all three,” Price said. “It just depends on the district and each district is different in terms of its motivations for doing so.”
Emerson said notices about the tuition requirement went out last week to students from outside the county planning to attend county-wide magnet schools in the fall. Out-of-county students enrolling in neighborhood schools will be notified as they work through the transfer process.
So far neither Coats nor School Board Vice Chairman Chris Staubes have heard any complaints from parents.
Staubes said he thinks charging tuition is a matter of equity.
“We have excellent programs in Charleston County, but we don’t have unlimited resources,” he said. “The decision to charge tuition to nonresident students all came down to fairness.”