(AP) Tucked into the leafy suburbs north of New York City, the Blind Brook-Rye public school district seems to have it all: state-of-the-art classrooms, high test scores and an enviable record of sending graduates to college, including many in the Ivy League.
What it hasn't always had in recent years is enough students. So to keep from laying off teachers and cutting back programs, the district is embarking on a plan to recruit from neighboring districts whose families are willing to pay tuition of more than $20,000 a year to a public school.
"We believe we have something that's highly attractive, and to use a business term, 'marketable,'" said Superintendent William Stark, whose 1,500-student district has one grade school, one middle school and one high school.
In a glossy brochure sent to neighboring districts, Blind Brook touts class sizes in the low 20s, 16 Advanced Placement courses, a top-100 ranking for its high school by U.S. News and World Report and award-winning Model UN, Mock Trial and math teams.
Outside students will be accepted only in grades where there's enough room to add students without hiring another teacher. And they'll have to arrange their own transportation.
"If we get one or two dozen, that's a quarter- to a half-million dollars," said Stark, whose district's annual budget is $41 million. "That can make the difference in offering another program or keeping a teacher or two, or maybe even lowering somebody's taxes."
Actively recruiting tuition-paying students from nearby districts is rare, but experts say it's a testament to the financial squeeze on public schools at a time of tax caps, tapped-out homeowners and dwindling government aid.
"School districts are all pinched and most are looking at ways they can trim," said Patte Barth of the National School Board Association. "They're increasing class size. They're laying off staff as a last resort. We do hear about some districts thinking creatively, and this is one."
Some public schools recruit students in states that have school choice rules, under which a student from one district can go to school in another district, and some state aid goes with the student. But those students do not pay tuition.
Superintendent Brett Kustigian of the Quaboag district in Warren and West Brookfield, Mass., said the district had been losing up to $800,000 a year under the choice system until it started recruiting. This year's effort included 19,000 postcards sent in April to parents in neighboring districts, highlighting Quaboag's AP classes and U.S. News ranking.
"We've got about 100 (outside) students now, so that's half a million dollars (in state aid)," Kustigian said. "We also do open houses. Some districts put up billboards."
The Riverdale district in Oregon also takes interdistrict transfers if the home district consents. If not, outside students can come to Riverdale anyway and pay tuition of up to $11,500, said spokeswoman Jody Haagenson.
The district, though within the city of Portland, is independent of the city school system. It boasts the state's top percentage of students going on to college, Haagenson said.
"We don't do any active recruiting," she said, "but word is out that we hope to pull in students. We do have an open house that we advertise in the community papers."
Public schools in many states recruit students from abroad, directly or through agencies and charge tuition plus room and board. Such students can stay only one year under current federal regulations, however.
In the Newcomb school district in New York's Adirondack Mountains, Superintendent Skip Hults says that in six years, students have attended from 26 countries, paying tuition that now is $5,000 a year. Foreign students also pay $5,500 for housing, which goes to the residents who put them up.
"We're a very underutilized district. We have extra books and desks," Hults said. "We offer a very good education and we are in a very safe area, and that's what parents look for when they send their child overseas."
He said Newcomb is now looking into recruiting from districts nationwide but hasn't begun yet.
"Maybe we'll recruit some students from Blind Brook," he said.
At Blind Brook, Stark said a dwindling school population was behind the recruiting plan.
"Our elementary school population went down close to 25 percent over the last five years, and we had to cut staff," he said. "We lost some really fine teachers. The other thing is, with the (New York state) tax cap, we're not allowed to raise taxes beyond a certain point and yet we have to meet an increasing number of mandates that the state sets forth."
Those mandates include pension-fund payments, and Stark has found still another way to help out local taxpayers and his own pocketbook. He plans to retire at the end of the month, then sign up again for four years, making him eligible for an estimated $200,000 annual pension on top of his $260,000 salary. The state will fund the pension and district homeowners will save nearly $50,000 a year by no longer having to contribute to his pension.
Glen Schuster, who is president of the Blind Brook school board and has children in grades four and nine, said of the recruiting campaign, "We're going outside the box and innovating to stay as strong as possible."
Blind Brook sent mailings to households in neighboring districts, including Port Chester and Harrison in New York and Greenwich in Connecticut.
Stark said applications for September are coming in, mostly from the New York metropolitan area, and tours are being arranged. He would not identify any applicants.
He noted that Blind Brook tuition, at $19,569 for kindergarten through sixth grade and $21,500 for grades seven through 12 under a formula used by the state, compares favorably with what a private school would charge in the area.
Walter Johnson, headmaster at the Hackley School in Tarrytown, where tuition is $33,000 to $38,500, said he welcomed Blind Brook's strategy.
"Anything the public schools can do to try to strengthen their financial situation is not only understandable but commendable," he said. "I cheer them on."
Associated Press researcher Rhonda Shafner contributed to this report from New York.
Online: Blind Brook-Rye school district, http://www.blindbrook.org