By Ashley Luthern
South Range is combatting dwindling class sizes and declining revenues by offering limited open enrollment in the upcoming school year, officials say.
The school board voted Monday to open enrollment to kindergarten through sixth-grade students in adjacent districts.
“The rationale is we need to run at capacity to be efficient academically and financially,” Superintendent Dennis Dunham said.
The district averages about 105 students per graduating class, but this year, only 58 students are in first grade and 70 in kindergarten.
“Our enrollment has declined significantly. ... We’re trying to sustain the programs we have in place now,” he said. “... We have fixed costs like all districts do, and we’re operating with less kids.”
The district is facing an $850,000 deficit in fiscal year 2014 and by adding open enrollment, “we would have the funding available to eliminate that deficit without changing fixed costs and in lieu of a new operating levy,” Dunham said.
If classes are brought up to capacity, the district is projecting it will generate about $1 million.
South Range was one of the few Mahoning Valley schools without open enrollment. All public schools in Trumbull and Columbiana counties offer some form of open enrollment.
The only local public schools that do not offer open enrollment are: Boardman, Campbell, Canfield, Poland and Springfield.
John Fromel, school-board president, said the open- enrollment decision was the result of two years of consideration and extensive communication with residents over the last three months.
“We had looked at trying to put on another tax levy. We’ve instituted a bunch of cuts and are working on additional cuts that would be in addition to going to open enrollment,” Fromel said.
The district teachers’ current two-year contract called for a base-and-step wage freeze and increased health-care contributions from five to 10 percent, he said.
“The teachers get it and did what they could. About two years ago, we had eliminated some aide and tutor positions. Some of the cuts we’re talking about now revolve around materials, supplies and purchase services,” Fromel said.
The district also is considering a single bus route to save fuel costs, which would mean the schools within the K-12 complex would have the same start time, he said.
Dunham said if the enrollment stays the same it would likely result in electives and Advanced Placement classes having too few students to justify the course offering.
Fromel and Dunham said residents’ primary concerns about open enrollment were that incoming students would have discipline problems and that open enrollment would affect property values.
Fromel said the district will have a screening process, and local open enrollment districts said incoming students with discipline problems are the exception, not the norm.
“A parent has to step up to get them into an open- enrollment district,” he said.
As for property values, Dunham said the district found “no evidence or data that property values would decline.”
He added that 89 percent of districts in Mahoning, Trumbull and Columbiana counties have open enrollment and the majority of those districts have seen an increase in valuation.
The declining South Range student population is a result of the economy, Dunham said.
“South Range is a rural district with a great deal of farmland and property that’s available. The housing starts have obviously fallen off since 2007 when the economy went south, and we don’t have people moving into the district,” he said.
Fromel said the school board believes open enrollment is the best long-term plan for the district.
“The model to fund schools off the backs of property tax owners over the long term, it cannot be sustained. This is what we needed to do,” he said.