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Funding switch could oust outside students from Beverly Hills schools

The Beverly Hills Unified School District will lose its financial incentive to accept out-of-town students. The fate of those already enrolled is the subject of heated debate.

February 10, 2009|Seema Mehta

One of the most sought-after tickets in Southern California, a permit to enroll a child in the academically acclaimed Beverly Hills Unified School District, may soon disappear.

Because of a funding shift, the wealthy district's financial incentive for accepting out-of-town students will end, probably within the next two years. So, as the district prepares for the change, many Beverly Hills residents say they want its $57-million budget spent for only students who live within its boundaries.

Out-of-district "parents should realize their free pass is up," said Denise Geller, who said she and her husband made sacrifices six years ago so they could buy a $1-million home in Beverly Hills and enroll their daughters in city schools. "If they really feel it is a great education, they should consider . . . moving to Beverly Hills."

Permit parents counter that their children, many of whom have been attending the city's schools for years, should not be forced to leave.

"This is what we know. This is where I hope [my daughter] stays until she graduates from high school," said Amy Phillips, who lives half a block outside Beverly Hills and whose 11-year-old has been attending the city's Horace Mann School since kindergarten.

There's no mystery why parents for years have tried to get their children into Beverly Hills schools. The district has high-achieving students, top academics and a rich array of courses and extracurricular activities.

Then there's the prestige factor. As the guidebook for Beverly Hills High advises incoming freshmen, "You are about to embark upon one of the most sought-after educational opportunities existing throughout the entire nation: the Beverly Hills High School Experience."

With the school board expected to vote on the issue Feb. 24, the permit debate has grown tense, with parents of nonresident students being labeled "freeloaders" and "ungrateful."

The ugliest moment occurred at a board study session in January when a permit parent likened two Jewish trustees who oppose allowing all current permit students to graduate from Beverly Hills High to Adolph Hitler.

"What that gentleman said in my opinion was unconscionable," said board member Steven Fenton, whose grandfather survived Nazi concentration camps.

The parent who made the comment later apologized in a letter to a local newspaper.

The board, which held a study session about the matter last month, is urging calm.

"As we get close to the next step, we'll handle it together," board President Nooshin Meshkaty told scores of parents gathered for the meeting in the high school's Salter Family Theater.

More than 16% of the district's 5,100 students are non-Beverly Hills residents attending city schools under special permits. About one-seventh of these permits were issued to increase racial and ethnic diversity at Beverly Hills High; roughly one-sixth have been granted to the children of district and city employees; 11 others are for "legacies" of alumni, who have grandparents who still live in the district and pay property taxes, among several requirements.

Those appear unlikely to change. (An additional 103 permits issued for reasons of personal or social adjustment are being audited.)

But the so-called "opportunity permits" awarded to nearly 500 students who bring in extra state dollars while rounding out class sizes and allowing the district to offer additional courses or activities -- middle-school French, higher-level math, a rich arts program -- are on the chopping block.

These permits are in question because Beverly Hills Unified is about to become one of the state's relatively few "basic-aid" districts, which means its coffers will rely largely on local property taxes rather than state aid based on student attendance. There are 90 such districts throughout California, located in wealthy enclaves such as Laguna Beach, Palo Alto, Montecito, Carmel and Del Mar. Beverly Hills would be the first in Los Angeles County.

Once that occurs, the district will no longer receive annual state funding amounting to $6,114 for each student it enrolls.

School board members agree that as the district prepares for the change, no new opportunity permits will be issued. But what about the existing permit students: Will they be allowed to stay in Beverly Hills through high school graduation?

Two board members, Brian Goldberg and Fenton, support allowing permit students to remain until "natural breaks" in their schooling. An elementary school student could stay through fifth grade, for example, a middle-school student could finish eighth grade and a high school student could graduate.

Many city parents say such a compromise is fair.

Engineer Lee Lewis, 47, said he moved to Beverly Hills from Marina del Rey in 2001 because of concerns about the local schools. Although the public elementary schools in his old neighborhood were decent, he said, he did not want his children attending high school in the Los Angeles Unified School District.

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