School Committee reaffirms ‘school choice’ for next academic year

Jan 23, 2024

Dartmouth High School will stay open to out-of-town students. 

At its Jan. 22 meeting, the School Committee voted to continue its participation in the state’s Inter-District School Choice program, which allows districts to open their doors to students from other districts. Tuition is paid by the sending district to the receiving district. 

132 students from out of town currently attend Dartmouth High School, about 13 percent of Dartmouth’s student population.

Last year, Dartmouth had about 56 students attend public schools in other districts, not including the approximately 323 students that went to Greater New Bedford Vocational Technical High School, or the 335 or so students that went off to private schools, said Superintendent June Saba-Maguire in an interview with Dartmouth Week. 

The system recently got Dartmouth out of a budget jam — a stockpile of school choice funds covered a shortfall in the 2025 school budget

At the same time, increased scrutiny on the school budget means the school choice system has also garnered pointed criticism. Notably, Finance Committee Chair Robert Gauvin has suggested multiple times that the School Committee should “phase out” school choice to save the district money. 

At a Jan. 8 joint meeting with the Select Board and School Committee, Gauvin said that the district’s per-student expenses are significantly higher — over three times more — than the state’s maximum per-student tuition of $5,000, and that cutting school choice could save students money. 

Gauvin reiterated his points during the public comment section of the Jan. 22 School Committee meeting. 

“I recommend that you phase out school choice,” Gauvin said. “I have been told that the best predictor of favorable student outcomes is the teacher to student ratio — If that’s true, then filling empty seats hurts the outcome of Dartmouth students.”

Gauvin also said he “would not want to be on the school committee” in the event that an “out-of-town student injures a Dartmouth student.”

Prior to voting to affirm school choice, School Committee member Shannon Jenkins responded directly to Gauvin’s assertions that the school district loses money on the program: “That is just simply not true,” Jenkins said. 

While the district does spend over $17,000 per student, all of the district’s overhead costs are included in that calculation, from keeping the lights on, to paying janitorial staff, to providing a diverse array of courses for students. 

“If you get rid of school choice students, none of those costs go away, they all continue to exist,” Jenkins said. “We have not hired additional staff to staff classes for our school choice students.”

Additional curriculum materials may need to be purchased, she said, but the tuition received for the student more than covers those costs. 

Responding to Gauvin’s concerns about class size, Jenkins said student-teacher ratio is most important at the earliest grade levels, and Dartmouth only accepts school choice students at the high school level. 

“The students that come here through school choice add value to our student community,” Jenkins said. 

During public comment, several Dartmouth students and one parent defended the school choice system. 

“I believe that I have accomplished a lot here at Dartmouth High that I would not have been able to accomplish at another school,” said Dartmouth High School senior Arlene Johnson, from New Bedford. “I have seen what school choice has done for kids and I think taking it down is just not right.” 

New Bedford Voc-Tech student Aubrey Wise said she grew up in Dartmouth, but when she moved just outside of the town’s boundaries, she could no longer attend. She applied for school choice, but was not selected. 

“I think I should be given the opportunity to join the junior class next year with all of my peers,” Wise said. 

Each year, the district admits approximately 30 new school choice students into the school. If there are more students than seats, the district employs a lottery system, Saba-Maguire said. About 70 students apply for those 30 or so spots, she said. Students primarily come from other nearby South Coast towns, including New Bedford, Westport, Swansea, Fairhaven, Acushnet and Fall River.

Parent Dawn Pomfret said she “was not planning on speaking” at the meeting, but said her daughter moved to Dartmouth High School from a district that “didn’t have much to offer in regards to sports and clubs,” and she’s now “thriving.”

“Her grades have excelled, she’s earning 97s in her classes, she earned her way to go to Spain in April, she’s part of the multicultural club, the Key Club,” Pomfret said. “We have just become so comfortable in this community and this school is so incredible.”

The School Committee voted 4-1 to keep the program in place for another year. Member John Nunes provided the lone dissenting vote: “It’s nothing against, it’s just a fundamental that I have always voted on and believed in.”