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Ben Franklin High leaders in disagreement over how to manage growing student population

Board members and administrators at Ben Franklin squabbled at the June 21 board meeing and failed to reach an agreement as the school discusses possible solutions to accommodate its rapidly growing student body.

Principal Timothy Rusnak expressed concerns for the school’s 803 students. According to Rusnak, the school is at its capacity, and overcrowding will become a problem if board members and school administrators cannot agree on a plan for growth.

While its charter says Ben Franklin can hold up to 1,000 students, Rusnak said the gymnasium, cafeteria, library and other rooms are not suitable for converting into classrooms. He also said other options, particularly a rotating teacher system, in which they would have no permanent classroom, would hinder teaching capabilities and affect teacher morale.

In a spirited discussion that followed Rusnak’s comments, board member Susan Weeks called on on school administrators to provide more concrete student body data that would help the board better plan for facility issues. She urged Rusnak to use student data to define a more precise number for the expected student population.

Rusnak, along with Admissions Director Lynn Jenkins and Accounting Director Allison Bent contended that the school’s admission policy, based on entrance exam scores, is responsible for the increasing population. Rusnak warned of losing “very bright students” should the school switch to a lottery option for student admissions.

Rusnak also told the board that failing to add to the student population would hinder the school’s financial survival.

Visibly frustrated with the disagreement, Board Chair Duris Holmes said, to paraphrase, that the discussion was going nowhere. He also criticized the board for its lack of action in response to what he called a “pervasive problem,” and he urged members to come up with an action plan.

The school announced it expects 273 new students in the upcoming school year. The freshmen class has jumped 30 percent in the last two years to total 240 for the upcoming year.  Twenty-eight sophomores and five juniors make up the rest of incoming students. Most of the transfer students come from Lusher Charter. Ninety-one students come from other schools in nine different states.

In final agenda items, the board announced it is in talks with Tulane University about a service program internship that would provide Tulane seniors with an opportunity to volunteer at Ben Franklin’s afterschool programs. The program will commence next spring.

Finally, the board announced that its public hearing for the 2012-2013 budget would take place at 3 p.m. on July 12.

The next board meeting is scheduled for July 19.

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