By SAMANTHA PHILLIPS
After an uproar over a new open-enrollment policy, Liberty schools Superintendent Joseph Nohra said the board of education is going to rewrite the resolution to clarify its position and plans to put it up for a vote in June.
“The board is in discussion, and will reword its resolution. We want it to be less about passion and emotion, and more about the spirit of the law,” he said.
The current resolution states the school district will no longer grant consent to native Caucasian students who wish to enroll in Girard City Schools.
Diana DeVito, Liberty school board vice president, said the district will emphasize the financial loss the district faces from open enrollment, but the board has yet to decide whether to change any aspects such as the specific restriction to
Nohra has said he would support having students open enroll to Girard tuition-free.
David Cappuzzello, Girard superintendent, views the resolution as an attack on his district and maintains he doesn’t actively recruit open-enrollment students. He said he has contacted the Liberty Board of Education about the resolution, and the Girard school board is waiting for a response.
“We are hopeful that the Liberty Board of Education will recognize that its actions have facilitated the very racial divide they claim their district is seeking to avoid. That said, should Liberty attempt to prohibit its “Native Caucasian” students or any other students from enrolling in Girard, we will pursue our legal options,” he said.
About 100 students transfer from Liberty to Girard per year, Nohra has said.
Though the state grants Liberty the ability to seek open-enrollment restrictions, there are other considerations.
Bill Rich, an associate law professor at the University of Akron, said state law permits the resolution, but it may cross constitutional lines based on past Supreme Court interpretations of the law.
He cited the Supreme court case Parents Involved in Community Schools vs. Seattle School District, in which the school district assigned students to certain schools based on race to avoid segregation. The Supreme Court ruled the racial assignment violated the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment.
“Although remedying the effects of past intentional discrimination is a compelling interest ... that interest is not involved here because the Seattle schools were never segregated by law nor subject to court-ordered desegregation,” according to court documents.
Rich said it would have had to serve a compelling governmental purpose to pass constitutional muster; in other words, it has to be the only way to preserve diversity and avoid segregation in the district.
He added the results of the ruling apply to other districts that also aren’t under desegregation orders. In Seattle’s case, after the ruling the board was able to create another plan to encourage diversity.
Because the rationale behind Liberty’s resolution was both to preserve diversity and to retain funds in the district, Rich said it might not legally justify stopping transfer of white students to a certain school district.
“The problem is they are saying ‘yes’ or no to student transfers based on race of individual students, and I think that will be all but impossible to defend under the Seattle case,” he said.
School officials throughout the Valley acknowledge it’s impossible to stop students from leaving the district if they wish — families have the right to choose where their students receive their education under state law.
“We can’t stop students from enrolling out of the school district,” said Boardman Superintendent Timothy Saxton.
Boardman is one of five school districts in the area — along with Poland, Canfield, Campbell and Springfield — that does not participate in open enrollment.
Students, however, can request to enroll in Boardman if they pay tuition out of pocket.
Three students from Canfield, Howland and Crestview currently pay tuition to be in the district, which Saxton attributes to the diverse curriculum, including Advanced Placement courses. He said students have also cited their orchestra and athletics program as reason they want to open enroll in Boardman schools.
About 169 students enroll out of the school district per year, less than 5 percent, which costs the district about $1 million annually. Saxton said the students go to various districts, including South Range and Columbiana districts.
“We have been tracking that for over five years now,” he said. “We want to know where the kids are going, and why they are going.”
Part of the effort the school district makes to retain students is to market its programs.
Ron Iarussi, superintendent of the Mahoning County Educational Service Center, conducted a study on open enrollment schools with Youngstown State University professor Karen Larwin.
Iarussi said school districts have limited options for revenue sources. Some districts, such as Lowellville which has 53 percent open- enrollment students, depend on that revenue.
“The underlying reason why a lot of school districts started to go in that direction is there are only so many sources of revenue. Schools can try to pass a levy or get donations, but those are few and far in between,” Larwin said.
Open enrollment brings school districts $6,100 per student, and having more students in a district reduces
the cost per pupil, Iarussi added.
As far as the Liberty resolution, Iarussi said school districts are trying to retain students and funding in the district but should respect a family’s choice to transfer their children.
THE AUSTINTOWN PLAN
Austintown schools have participated in open enrollment since 2008.
The year before, the school district faced the risk of a financial deficit, and the board informed residents they needed to approve a levy to continue to not enroll students from other districts.
Vincent Colaluca, Austintown superintendent, said the district lost about $9 million from about 1994 to 2008 from students who transferred to other districts. The board sought to replace the empty seats and the revenue from students leaving the district. But the levy didn’t pass that year; the school district hasn’t had a levy approved since 1996.
About 711 students open enroll in Austintown from surrounding school districts, mainly from Youngstown, per year and make up 13 percent of the student population. This generates about $4.3 million a year for the district; it would take a 6.2-mill levy to match that amount.
“The only way we have been able to run the schools and survive is through revenue we brought in from open enrollment,” Colaluca said. “Without open-enrollment revenue, we would be in the red when we didn’t pass the levy.”
A typical class in Austintown has 23 available seats. If 10 open-enrollment students are in that class, that generates about $61,000, which pays for the salaries and benefits of a new Austintown teacher. If it’s a full class, the remaining 13 students generate about $79,300, which goes into creating and enhancing other programs, including STEM and an online school.
“We feel we offer more academic programs than any school in the area,” he said.
In fact, it was the loss of revenue that most concerned Liberty board member DeVito.
“I really worry about the loss of revenue, and I think we have to do the right thing by taxpayers in the township,” DeVito said. “I think if [taxpayers] knew how much money is leaving the district, they would be appalled.”
Larwin said, according to their study, students who open enroll in other districts typically perform the same or better than students in the districts they move to.
She said literature suggests it’s because there is a higher standard to aim for and they may have to improve to meet the school’s expectations.
“Within a year, the performance is moving up,” she said.
Iarussi said many school boards are concerned about students leaving districts because it affects funding, and because they worry if their top-performing students transfer, then their overall test scores will be lower.
Girard also participates in open enrollment. The superintendent said about 206 students open enroll in the district per year, which generates about $1.6 million. It loses about 74 students a year, and with them about $451,400, so it nets about $805,000 a year from open enrollment.
The students come from about 16 districts, including Howland, Warren and Austintown, and students transfer to about 12 school districts. About seven go to Liberty schools, he said.
“We’re doing something right. I believe we have the best teachers, the best parents and the best students in the Valley,” Cappuzzello said.