OPEN ENROLLMENT: Big money at stake

Two Washington County public school districts are losing students and the funding that comes along with them in Ohio as part of the state’s open enrollment policy.

The state policy allows students to enroll in districts other than the one they live in. Districts are given the option of denying open enrollment, allowing open enrollment from any other public district or allowing open enrollment for adjacent districts.

Frontier Local School and Belpre City Schools, going with the trend of recent counts, have lost more students to the state’s policy than gained, while Marietta, Warren, Fort Frye and Wolf Creek have gained more than lost.

Based on the most recent data from the Ohio Department of Education, Belpre has 94 students coming in from other districts and has lost 125 students to other districts.

Tony Dunn, superintendent of Belpre City Schools, said the distribution of funds for open enrollment needs to be reformed. The state of Ohio pays $5,745 per pupil to a district receiving students from other districts, meaning that the district losing the student means losing the funding.

“When districts receive more students from open enrollment than they send out, that’s a big pay day. When they lose more than they receive, then those districts are the ‘loser’ districts,” Dunn said. “We’re losing upwards of $200,000 from students because of open enrollment.”

Dunn said the state claims that payments going to another district to receive a student living in Belpre comes from state funding dollars only, but he said that argument is “laughable.”

“It’s based on a convoluted worth placed on different communities,” Dunn said. “The local taxpayers end up paying for the rest of that funding, and that’s why we have to have levies.”

Dunn said it’s unfair to the district and to its taxpayers who put money into each pupil and end up losing them to other schools, an issue he wished more people understood.

“People don’t understand that they are voting on a levy or spending tax money and it ends up going into other public schools or charter and private schools,” he said.

Frontier Local Schools, where the fate of the district’s elementary schools has citizens worried about losing students, is the only district in Washington County that only accepts open enrollment from districts adjacent to it.

“We currently have $129,000 coming in through open enrollment and $222,000 going out, and most of our open enrollment in and out is with Marietta City and Switzerland of Ohio,” said Frontier Local Treasurer Frank Antill.

Antill said the gap is fairly consistent when compared to past recent fiscal year head counts.

Marietta City Schools has recently gone into a positive outlook on open enrollment, where the district now has 102 coming and only 92 going out. In 2011 the number was much different, with the district losing 109 students while only receiving 71.

“It’s hard to know exactly what the reasoning behind that is, but we like to think it’s because we’re putting out a good product and that our school system and teachers are doing well,” said Marietta Board of Education President Bill Hutchinson. “Everybody is going to just hope that those numbers stay about even.”

Wolf Creek is one of the other districts in Washington County that has stood to gain from open enrollment, with 63 students coming in to the district and only 41 leaving.

“From a financial viewpoint, you get about $5,700 per student, so we gain around $285,000 from our open enrollment numbers, which is of course positive,” said Bob Caldwell, superintendent of Wolf Creek Local Schools.

Caldwell said that open enrollment rules in his district become less restrictive as a student ages through school, because there is more emphasis placed on small class sizes in the younger grades.

Current open enrollment policy in Ohio stipulates that to accept students from other districts, restrictions on building capacity and class sizes must be in place to avoid over-populating schools.

As far as the reasoning behind students enrolling in other districts, administrators said there is a wide variety of possibilities as to why parents would enroll children in a district other than the one they live in.

“I think sometimes it’s place of employment for the parent, or it’s where the parent or guardian went to high school themselves, and they want that child to be there too,” Caldwell said.

He cited other reasons, as about 15 of the students that Wolf Creek received were children of district teachers, and many also have grandparents living in the district that make it more convenient for child care purposes.

“It’s hard to know what the exact reasons are for why people transfer in and out, but it could be anything from busing that other districts don’t have to the curriculum we offer that others might not,” Hutchinson said.

Dunn said sports and other extra-curricular activities can be the reasoning behind it, as a school district like Marietta has a larger variety of sports that are not available in many districts.

“Some go for more sporting opportunities, but those go both ways. We get kids that want to participate in sports here because we’re a little smaller, so there’s less competition,” Dunn said. “But we lose athletes because we don’t have as competitive of a football team, or we have co-ed soccer, and there’s kids that don’t want that.”

Senate Bill 123 is currently in the works in the Ohio legislature to repeal the current open enrollment policy by July 2015 pending a formal study to determine the effectiveness of open enrollment and the fairness in regards to funding.

Nearly 2,000,000 students are currently enrolled in public schools across the state of Ohio, and in 2013 a record 72,000 of them went to schools outside of their home district.