Youngstown public schools lost $1.3 million because of open enrollment last year.
By IAN HILL
VINDICATOR STAFF WRITER
LOWELLVILLE -- Jim Theisler arrived at the Lowellville Board of Education office about 4 a.m. and stood outside with a thermos of hot coffee.
Before long, he had attracted the attention of police.
"They said, 'What are you doing here?'" Theisler said. He responded, "I'm here for open enrollment."
Open enrollment allows schools to accept pupils from outside their districts. Theisler, who lives in the Youngstown City School District, said he was the first parent in line that spring day four years ago to fill out an application to have his child attend school in Lowellville through open enrollment.
Superintendent Rocco Nero said there's typically a line outside the board office when the district accepts open-enrollment applications.
The high number of pupils attending Lowellville schools through open enrollment has resulted in a financial windfall for the district, as school districts receive additional state funding for each open-enrollment pupil they accept.
State records show that Lowellville received $952,407 from the state because of open enrollment last school year, which was about a third of its $2.9 million in total state funding.
"It's been very good to us," Nero said.
Here's the problem
But though open enrollment has been a blessing for districts like Lowellville, it's also been a curse for others, as districts lose state funding for each pupil who leaves through open enrollment.
Districts that lose dozens pupils through open enrollment can lose a considerable amount of state funding.
School boards have to vote to approve accepting pupils through open enrollment.
A total of 29 of the 45 school districts in Mahoning, Trumbull and Columbiana counties had open enrollment last year, and the Niles, Liberty, Howland and LaBrae districts began accepting pupils through open enrollment this year.
Those figures do not include vocational schools or schools for pupils with disabilities.
About 68.5 percent of school districts statewide had open enrollment last school year, according to the Ohio Department of Education Web site.
Theisler said a few weeks after he filled out an open-enrollment application, he and his wife, Mary Ann, received a letter stating that their daughter, Kayla, had been accepted to attend kindergarten in Lowellville.
"We felt like we hit the lottery," he said, adding that he and his family believed his daughter would receive a better education in Lowellville than she would in Youngstown.
Theisler's daughter, now in third grade, was one of about 182 pupils attending school in Lowellville through open enrollment last year. That represented a big chunk of the district's total average daily enrollment of 438.
Districts in Mahoning County will receive about $5,344 from the state for each open-enrollment pupil they accept this year, and Trumbull County districts will receive $5,349 for each open-enrollment pupil, and Columbiana County districts will receive $5,277 for each one.
The state gives districts less for half-day kindergarten and vocational school pupils and more for special education pupils.
That's more than most districts in those counties will receive for regular pupils.
Lowellville, for example, received about $3,516 in state funding for each non-open-enrollment pupil in 2002-03, the most recent year that figure was available from the state. That same year, Lowellville received $5,137 for each open-enrollment pupil it accepted.
The difference is that the state expects taxpayers in each district to pick up some of the cost of educating regular pupils. It does not expect taxpayers in the district that accepted the open-enrollment pupil to help pay the cost of that pupil's education.
Instead, it takes state funding away from an open-enrollment pupil's home district to help pay for his or her education. The state takes away less money for half-day kindergarten and vocational pupils and more for special education pupils.
State Rep. Chuck Calvert of Medina, R-69th, chairman of the House Finance Committee, said the amount that local residents are expected to pay for each pupil's education is different in each district.
As a result, state officials couldn't create a uniform state funding system for open-enrollment pupils, he said.
"There's no answer that would fit all situations. ... you'd have three of four people unhappy."
Calvert said he was not in office when the state first required school boards to approve open enrollment in 1993.
Austintown Superintendent Stan Watson said the effect of open enrollment on his district has been devastating. The district, which does not have open enrollment, received $3,645 per pupil in total state funding in 2002-03; it lost $5,137 for each open-enrollment pupil who left the district that year.
Seventy-two pupils who lived in Austintown attended school in other districts through open enrollment last year, state records show. Austintown schools lost $381,318 last year because of open enrollment.
The Austintown school board has discussed voting to accept open-enrollment pupils in an effort to raise money.
"I think every school district in the state of Ohio has concerns about it," said Lakeview Superintendent Matthew Chojnacki. His district, which does not have open enrollment, lost $52,341 in state funding last year because 10 pupils attended schools in other districts.
Chojnacki said he believes open enrollment encourages districts to compete for pupils, which can divert officials' attention from fixing more pressing problems in their schools.
He added that in districts with open enrollment, taxpayers are spending money on school services for pupils who are not from their community.
"These people never once had to contribute to a levy," said Canfield Superintendent Dante Zambrini. His district does not have open enrollment and lost $52,953 in state funding this year because of pupils who left to attend school in other districts.
Leetonia Superintendent Tom Inchak said he believes school districts had it better before 1993.
"It was kind of nice in the old days, when you went to school where you lived, the funding stayed, and it was a stable situation," Inchak said. "We'd like to have all residents going to school here, but certainly that's not the situation."
The Leetonia schools accepted 28 pupils through open enrollment last school year while losing 57 to other districts. As a result, the state reduced the district's funding by $147,199.
No school district in the Mahoning Valley lost more funding last year because of open enrollment than the Youngstown city schools.
State records show that about 250 pupils from the city school district attended school in other districts through open enrollment last year, and that figure cost the district $1.3 million.
Because of the low value of property in the city, Youngstown is one of the few districts in the state that receive more total state funding per pupil than it loses through open enrollment. The city schools received about $7,193 in total state funding per pupil in 2002-03.
"It's a huge concern," said schools Treasurer Carolyn Funk. "Our school district is solving [other districts'] financial problems. They're taking our kids because they want the money. Tax dollars go right along with those kids."
The Youngstown schools accept pupils from adjacent districts through open enrollment. No pupils, however, took the district up on the offer last year.
About 157 of the pupils who left the Youngstown schools through open enrollment attended school in Lowellville.
Lowellville schools received the top ranking of excellent on their state report cards last year.
Theisler said he was concerned about how attending the Youngstown schools would have affected his daughter's future.
"You send a good kid there. They don't bring the other kids up. The other kids bring your child down," he said.
Reason for move
Funk said she disagreed with Youngstown parents like Theisler who send their children to other districts through open enrollment because of concerns about quality of education provided in the city.
"We don't see how they can say that," she said. "We think that's an excuse. We think these people haven't looked at the Youngstown city schools lately and at the programs we offer."
Other area parents whose children attend school through open enrollment said quality of education played an important role in their decisions.
Niles resident Heidi McCormick said when her son was in sixth grade, she and her husband decided to take him out of the Niles schools and send him to Weathersfield, where classes were smaller and he could get more attention from teachers.
"The teaching is just phenomenal," McCormick said. She said her son is now a junior at Mineral Ridge High School, and her two younger children also attend Weathersfield schools.
McCormick noted that she is a Mineral Ridge graduate. Area school officials said some parents use open enrollment to send their children to their alma mater.
Open enrollment also allows some residents to continue the tradition of having pupils in a particular neighborhood attend the same school. Watson said many of the pupils who leave the Austintown schools live in neighborhoods between Interstate 80 and County Line Road, where children have traditionally attended the Weathersfield schools.
State records show that about 58 of the 72 pupils who left the Austintown schools through open enrollment last year attended Weathersfield schools.
Angie Cameron said her family didn't realize they were in the Austintown School District when they first moved to their new home just south of County Line Road about a year and a half ago.
The Camerons' two daughters now attend Weathersfield schools through open enrollment.
"It's just a real good school system," Cameron said. "We love it."