By Ashley Luthern
Open enrollment has become so prevalent in the Mahoning Valley and around the state that it’s easier to count which districts remain closed.
Ohio has 664 public school districts and of these, 147 districts, or about 22 percent, do not have any form of open enrollment.
In the Mahoning Valley, only five school districts — all in Mahoning County — do not have open enrollment: Boardman, Campbell, Canfield, Poland and Springfield. All public school districts in Trumbull and Columbiana counties offer some form of open enrollment.
The decision about open enrollment comes down to finances, because in Ohio, the money follows the students.
A student’s home district loses about $5,700 for each student who attends a different district and the amount increases for special-needs students.
SOME GAIN, OTHERS LOSE
South Range, for example, recently decided to offer limited open enrollment for students in neighboring districts in kindergarten through sixth grade. The district is facing an $850,000 deficit in fiscal year 2014, and by adding open enrollment to fill classes to capacity, the district is projecting it will generate about $1 million, the superintendent has said.
South Range borders four of the five closed districts, including Canfield.
Canfield Superintendent Alex Geordan said he isn’t worried about losing many students to South Range.
“It’s not my position to tell a family where they should educate their youngster, but we feel Canfield will be the best option,” he said.
Canfield has an excellent academic rating and has been fiscally responsible with cuts made through attrition, he said.
“But without the state coming forward and changing the pattern of funding – which we don’t anticipate anybody riding in here on a golden horse to give us additional dollars from the state level – additional revenue will have to take place,” Geordan said.
With that consideration, he said it’s impossible to leave open enrollment out of a revenue discussion.
“I don’t think we can take it off the table. It is definitely a revenue stream that many districts are going to. I still feel the philosophy is us competing against fellow districts for enrollment and I have a very difficult time in doing that,” Geordan said.
In the competition for students, some districts such as Youngstown have come up on the losing side, while others like Austintown are gaining.
The city school district is projecting a $48 million deficit by 2017 without reductions or additional revenue, and $40 million of that amount is attributed to losing students to community schools, vouchers and open enrollment.
As of Jan. 10, 1,215 city students were attending other schools through open enrollment.
Austintown has statewide open enrollment and students can enter at any grade level. The district’s open enrollment numbers have climbed from about 250 when it was first instituted to about 600 this year, said Superintendent Vincent Colaluca.
After levy defeats, “we had choices to make, either cut programs or services or find revenue. The game has changed, and the state wants competition. Philosophically, we don’t believe in it, but we’re doing what’s best for our children and community,” he said.
Last year, Austintown lost $2 million in state and federal funding, but thanks primarily to taking in more students, the district has avoided a deficit, Colaluca said.
“Increasing open enroll- ment was part of our recovery plan for the state of Ohio,” he said. “...Without open enrollment, we’d be down 50 teachers and be at state minimum for academics.”
Boardman Superintendent Frank Lazzeri described open enrollment as a double-edged sword.
“If a school district is negatively impacted by open enrollment, it may consider (it’s own) open enrollment to draw more kids. It becomes a vicious cycle,” he said.
Boardman has never seriously considered going to open enrollment, and if it would, Lazzeri said there would be public meetings before a decision.
“Open enrollment is a short-term game. Once you reach a certain capacity, you’ll still have a situation where you need more revenue because of inflationary costs,” he said.
Lazzeri said the district is grateful for voter support of a new levy to generate about $3.2 million annually that gave the district a firm financial footing.
When asked about losing students to South Range, Lazzeri said it’s a “wait and see” situation. Boardman has historically lost more revenue from students using vouchers or state programs to attend charter or parochial schools, rather than open enrollment, he said.
The Poland Board of Education took up the option of open enrollment during its levy talks, but board president Richard Weaver said the discussion ended after voters approved a 5.9-mill, five-year additional emergency operating levy to generate about $2.2 million annually.
“The majority of people do not want to see [the district] go to open enrollment. I think they voted their objection to open enrollment. Now we’re funded where we don’t have to do it and I don’t see us going to it,” Weaver said.
The board, however, is aware of open enrollment sweeping across the state.
“If the day comes when we’re all open, it’s almost a free market. I think we’d do really well based on our academic rankings and our facilities and extracurricular and athletic activities,” Weaver said.
Still, he said, all open enrollment does “is pass the [funding] problem from one school to another” and that as long as Poland is financially able to remain closed, Weaver said he favors remaining closed.
Campbell also favors remaining closed, said Ken Ekis, director of special services.
“That subject has been brought up as a way to increase revenue and our board of education is saying at this point: ‘If we can make it without that, we are choosing not to have open enrollment in our district,’” Ekis said.
Springfield schools also does not see open enrollment as a necessity at this time, said Superintendent Debra Mettee.
“We’re not losing people; people are moving in,” she said, referencing the oil-and-natural-gas boom in the township.
The Springfield district is unique in the area for its 1 percent income tax.
“Our residents are very protective of it. They pay real estate and income tax for the schools that they want to have for their children. Someone coming in on open enrollment will not be paying income tax,” Mettee said.
Another obstacle for the district, if it decided to go with limited open enrollment to neighboring districts, is that it borders Pennsylvania and has a smaller pool of surrounding schools than other districts.
Springfield borders South Range — and the two school districts have a friendly rivalry — but Mettee said she doesn’t anticipate students leaving for South Range because of the distance.
The schools are about 11 miles apart, or a 20-minute drive.