To Cheryl and Joshua Winiarz, the Los Angeles County Board of Education represented their last hope for keeping their daughter in the school she loved.
The Beverly Hills school system denied Sophie a permit to continue attending Horace Mann Elementary School because she lives outside the city. In June, the Winiarzes appealed the decision to the county board but left in tears after the request was denied.
They are among about 200 families who, under a new policy, were denied permits for their children to continue attending Beverly Hills Unified schools because they live outside of the city. Dozens of families appealed to the county, but many said they believe they did not receive a fair hearing because not all seven members of the panel were present to vote. Four "yes" votes are required to overturn the school district; the Winiarzes received two affirmative votes from the five members present.
Of the 44 appeals heard so far, 30 have been rejected. In 19 of those denied cases, including Sophie's, the county board's hearing consultant recommended that the appeal be granted.
Sophie had been enrolled in the Beverly Hills district since the fourth grade, first at Beverly Vista School and then as an honor student at Horace Mann, less than a mile from the family's home. Her parents argued that she should be allowed to complete seventh and eighth grades at the school.
"It's so unjust," Cheryl Winiarz said. "Sophie was afraid to come to the hearing and now she'll be devastated. They're doing psychological damage to these children."
Parents from the Beverly Hills school district are not the only ones affected by such residency disputes. Many cash-strapped school districts want to keep more of their students — and the state funding they bring. Families of many of these students are filing appeals.
Hearings are punctuated frequently by sobs and sometimes angry outbursts from families struggling with custody and childcare arrangements as well as transportation and health issues.
So many cases are piling up — 30 to 40 are on agendas in coming weeks — that the county board is considering having a separate panel decide some cases.
Board member Leslie K. Gilbert-Lurie wants to revise the four-vote requirement, so that only three votes would be needed to win an appeal if some board members are absent.
"I think our process is fair, but my concern is that different decisions get reached depending on the number of board members present that day," Gilbert-Lurie said. "We're not judging the cases in an identical way."
The appeals have spotlighted the difficult balancing act faced by the county board, which decides cases based on criteria such as the availability of special programs that might benefit some students but aren't offered in their home districts, transportation problems that might create a hardship, and child care.
Board member Maria Elena Yepes argued that educational continuity should take precedence. She has often voted for the families in the Beverly Hills appeals.
"If it's not a natural break in the child's education, they should stay where they are," she said.
County board member Douglas R. Boyd, who has voted against granting the appeals in the majority of Beverly Hills cases, said it is not the job of his panel to "micromanage" that district's decisions.
"I would have drawn the lines differently but I respect their right to make their own policy decisions and I have voted accordingly," Boyd said.
Money was a primary reason why the Beverly Hills Board of Education voted earlier this year to restrict most permits for students who live outside the district's boundaries. The district changed the way it pays for schools, using property tax revenues rather than state student attendance funding. Some officials had argued that Beverly Hills taxpayers should not have to subsidize the education of nonresidents.
Under the new policy, seventh graders living outside of the city will be allowed to graduate next year from middle school in Beverly Hills. And those in high school can continue to graduation. But students in elementary school and eighth grade will not be allowed to return.
In June, Jillian Neal won an appeal for her son Jamison, 11, to stay at Horace Mann, which he has attended since kindergarten. She counts herself lucky but feels badly for other families, many of whom she knows from the PTA. She has pushed for them with county supervisors and legislators. She said she is so disenchanted with the Beverly Hills district that she plans to enroll her son in a Los Angeles charter school.
"I'm dealing with it every day trying to help find recourse," Neal said. "I stay up at night thinking about these kids and how their lives are affected."
Beverly Hills Board of Education President Steven Fenton said restricting permit students will mean more money for his district, which is in a period of transition with a new interim principal at Beverly Hills High School, three new elementary school principals and a new interim superintendent.
Fenton said he has friends who have appeared before the county board and lost. "I haven't taken satisfaction in any of this," he said.
Meanwhile, the Winiarzes, like other families, are unsure where to send their daughter in the fall. Joshua Winiarz said his family is considering moving into an apartment in Beverly Hills to stay in the district.
"There's going to be a financial impact; an impact on where we're going to live," he said. "You do what you have to do to keep giving your child a good education."