Schools question rules for funding

By Denise Dick

Community schooling costs public districts in Ohio hundreds of millions of dollars annually.

BOARDMAN — Suburban school district officials say they don’t object to competition; they just think it should be staged on a level playing field.

The funding — as well as some requirements — for public schools, though, is different from funding for community schools, say Boardman schools Superintendent Frank Lazzeri and Treasurer Richard Santilli.

Local taxpayers bear the brunt, they add.

“We’re meeting state standards. We’re doing what we’re supposed to do, and we’re being penalized,” Santilli said.

Last year, the Boardman district lost $693,405 to 14 community schools. That number has increased to about $810,500. An additional $196,000 was lost through open enrollment, in which pupils opt to leave their home district to attend another district that agrees to accept them.

There are 332 community schools in Ohio. In the 2006-07 school year, more than half of community schools statewide were in academic watch or emergency.

Boardman, on the other hand, has maintained an excellent rating on its state report card for the last two years.

The state provides a per-pupil funding of $5,732, but that amount is substantially decreased for public school districts based on local property valuation.

A local property charge-off per pupil, based on local property valuation, is nearly $4,658. After that reduction, the amount the district receives from the state per regular education pupil is about $1,143.

There is no local property charge-off for community schools though. Community schools in Boardman receive $5,732 per regular education pupil.

“It’s the local taxpayers that pay the difference,” Santilli said. “I don’t think most people realize that.”

The lower the percentage of state aid received by a district, the higher the percentage of local taxes that cover the difference.

In Boardman’s case, the district receives about $1,200 in state basic aid while the $4,589 difference must be made up from local funds that come from taxpayers.

“We have no problem with competition,” Lazzeri said. “We just want a level playing field for funding.”

Ron F. Adler, president of the Ohio Coalition for Quality Education, a pro-community schools group, doesn’t buy the argument that community schools receive funding without accountability.

“I think it’s kind of ridiculous,” he said.

Part of the legislation regulating community schools requires that a community school that doesn’t meet specified academic requirements for three years be shut down, Adler said.

“There are over 300 public district schools in academic watch or emergency and there’s no consequences or penalties,” he said.

Penalties imposed by the state on public school districts that don’t achieve standards for several consecutive years may include removal of personnel, however.

Community schools also are subject to a higher standard fiscally, Adler said.

If a public community school is suffering from fiscal problems, it must notify the state and “all state funding will be stopped,” he said.

Public school districts, on the other hand, that suffer financial strain are declared in fiscal emergency, and an oversight commission is appointed by the state, Adler said.

The Ohio General Assembly approved legislation creating community schools because lawmakers were tired of putting billions of dollars into schools that weren’t performing, Adler said.

“There was no competition, no choice and no incentive to change,” he said.

Community schools offer options for pupils in districts that don’t perform well, as well for those who may not be comfortable in a public school setting.

“Parents should have the right to pick what school they want their child to go to,” Adler said.

But somebody has to pay for their education and that ends up being local taxpayers such as those in Boardman and Lordstown, Santilli said.

Like Boardman school officials, Dr. Robert Zorn, Poland schools superintendent, believes discrepancies exist between his school district’s state funding compared to community schools. For 2007-08, Poland lost 26 kids and $171,602 to seven community schools.

Poland gets about $2,107 per pupil in state funding because of the charge-off while community schools get the standard $5,732 per pupil.

It’s even worse for Lordstown.

Mark Ferrara, that district’s treasurer, said the district received no state money per pupil because of high property valuation in Lordstown.

“They say the money that supports community school is state money, but if I’m getting zero dollars per pupil, it’s my taxpayers who are paying,” Ferrara said.

Community schools were created in the late 1990s by the state Legislature. The action wasn’t approved by voters.

The idea was to provide an alternative to pupils in districts that weren’t performing well, said Doug Heuer, Austintown schools superintendent.

This year, 145 pupils from the Austintown district are attending community schools amounting to a loss of about $790,000 for Austintown. That’s up from 105 the previous year, when Austintown lost nearly $766,000 to 20 community schools.

“Austintown students attended 19 different community schools last year,” Heuer said.

Of those community schools, the highest state rating was continuous improvement.

“Most are in academic watch and a few are in academic emergency,” the Austintown superintendent said. “All Austintown schools are rated excellent or effective.”

As a way to cope with the loss of funding, Austintown opted to adopt an open enrollment policy, accepting nondistrict pupils, beginning next school year.

Heuer says he recognizes that the idea of competition isn’t going away.

“I just wish they would change one thing,” he said. “If a student chooses to go to a different school [either through open enrollment or community school], allow them to go, but allow the money to go with them only if they’re going to a better rated school.”

If the pupil is leaving a school to attend one with a poorer rating, Heuer notes, they’re not going for the reason that the Legislature intended.

Area school district officials have met with local legislators voicing their concerns, but Santilli urges residents who believe the community school system is unfair to public schools to contact their legislators and ask questions.

The funding discrepancy for special-education pupils is even larger. There are several categories for special education with different funding amounts.

For about 569 special-education pupils, Boardman receives $492,629. For about 24 special-education pupils from Boardman, community schools receive $234,956.

According to the district’s calculations, the district would receive $5,774 in state funding for a special-education pupil who is autistic. If the pupil would enroll in a community school, that school would receive $24,381.

Most of the community schools in Ohio are for-profit, and Lazzeri and Santilli believe that making money is their main focus.

Zorn also questions how many community schools would continue to operate if the funding system were changed and they received the same amount per pupil as local districts.

While public school districts must maintain multiple buildings, community schools aren’t burdened by those costs, Lazzeri said.

“We have to pay our bills and go to the taxpayers when our electric bill goes up,” he said.

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