By MAX FILBY
It’s 3 a.m. and a line is wrapped around the outside of the building, four hours before it opens. It may look like Black Friday morning, but these people aren’t shopping for a bargain.
Instead, they’re looking for a school for their children through open enrollment.
“It’s really does get crazy. You should see it,” said Nichole Jiran, superintendent of the Hopewell-Loudon School District in Seneca County, which gets swamped with open enrollment requests.
When open enrollment begins, the line of parents stretches “around the building,” Jiran said.
Many parents seek to enroll their children in nearby school districts rather than the district they live in.
Some think the academic, music or sports programs are better at a nearby school district. Sometimes, it’s a matter of proximity to a school in another district.
Family tradition can also be a factor. Some parents may want their children to attend the same school they did.
The parents’ decisions are a big deal, financially, for Ohio schools.
A district can gain or lose millions of dollars per year in revenue, depending on where students enroll.
That’s because state financial aid “follows the student,” as educators say, to whatever school he attends.
A student takes about $3,895 on average in state funding with him or her when enrolling in another district, according to a state report on open enrollment. The student also takes a state-mandated base rate of $5,745 in local funding, meaning money from one school district’s income or property taxes goes to another district’s bank account.
At Hopewell-Loudon, which moved into a new building last year, about 300 students from outside the school district open-enroll each year, accounting for about one-third of district students. They bring in close to $2 million a year for the district, Jiran said.
Hopewell-Loudon’s open-enrollment period begins and ends in the same month because of high demand, but other districts’ open-enrollment period may continue through the summer.
While Hopewell-Loudon and other districts benefit financially from open enrollment, districts such as Fostoria and Findlay do not.
Fostoria schools Treasurer Norman Elchert and Findlay Superintendent Dean Wittwer both said they think only the state financial aid should follow students from district to district, not local funding. Fostoria loses $2.1 million a year to open enrollment and Findlay loses a little more than $1 million.
“Why don’t you say, ‘All you can take from the school district is the state share,’” Wittwer said. “This is what we can’t seem to get legislators to understand.”
Wittwer said the money taxpayers vote to give to Findlay schools should stay in Findlay instead of going to some of its competing districts. In its annual report, a state open enrollment task force recommended local money stay in districts as a way to resolve the problem of “unfairness” in open enrollment.
That view is not shared by all area superintendents. Jiran, from Hopewell-Loudon, is in favor of keeping the current regulations.
“You can’t just take one (funding source) and not the other,” she said. “It just doesn’t work that way.”
Fostoria City Schools officials disagree as their annual loss of $2.1 million is the most of any area district. The loss is the result of Fostoria students enrolling at other districts. Many go to nearby Hopewell-Loudon.
Fostoria had 368 students leave through open enrollment last school year, while only 34 students arrived from other districts, Elchert said.
The Fostoria district’s reputation is one reason for the exodus, Elchert said.
“I think people just need to give it a chance,” Elchert said of Fostoria.
Other area superintendents agree that reputation is a factor in open enrollment, but buildings and equipment, and academic and extracurricular offerings also make a difference.
Findlay City Schools is fighting to keep students, and the funding that comes with them, by improving the district’s offerings and buildings.
“We are constantly trying to see and survey why it is that some people come and go,” Wittwer said.
Findlay City Schools loses a little more than $1 million a year to students leaving the district. Last school year, 217 open enrollment students came in and 385 left.
Of the outgoing students, many went to Liberty-Benton schools, just west of Findlay, Wittwer said.
But Findlay has been able to boost the number of incoming open-enrollment students because of the appeal of the district’s three new buildings, Wittwer said. In 2012, the district opened Glenwood and Donnell middle schools and Millstream Career Center, which it advertises to prospective students and their families across Hancock County.
Other districts are using similar techniques to lure students and their families. None seems to have the overwhelming demand for spots that Hopewell-Loudon enjoys, but several are able to offset their financial losses.
Liberty-Benton School District started accepting students through open enrollment about five years ago. The first year, it welcomed 60 students.
“In our district, when we first talked about doing it, you know, it’s the area of unknown, you don’t know what’s coming in. I think there was a bit of apprehension there,” Superintendent Jim Kanable said.
Overall, open enrollment has had a positive impact on the district, he said.
Last school year there were 211 students who came to Liberty-Benton through open enrollment and the district is rapidly reaching its limit.
The additional students have sometimes caused the district to hire more teachers to keep class sizes down.
After the district added eight open-enrollment students in the second grade two years ago, administrators hired a fifth second-grade teacher. The new teacher helped lower class size from 25 students per room to about 21 students.
The additional revenue from the open-enrollment students made it possible.
“We were bringing in close to $50,000 in revenue, hiring a teacher for about $40,000, (and) we were still netting $10,000,” Kanable said.
“Normally, when you look at education, you don’t think of it as a business-type scenario, but in some cases, it really does come down to that,” Kanable said.
Over 150 of Liberty-Benton’s open-enrollment students come from the Findlay School District. Others travel from as far away as Arcadia, Fostoria and Ada.
Meanwhile, about 70 students from Liberty-Benton choose to go to other districts, primarily Findlay.
Kanable said he believes many go to Findlay for the sports teams and other extracurriculars that a smaller district like Liberty-Benton cannot provide.
But Liberty-Benton brings in about three times more open-enrollment students than it loses per year. Open enrollment brings in about $790,000 a year, the equivalent of about 5 mills of property taxation.
Open enrollment was an issue that district officials looked at before placing a bond issue for a new K-8 building on the ballot in November 2013.
Was the district accepting so many new students that it was straining the limits of the current building?
Kanable said the impact of open-enrollment students has been taken into account, but the primary reason for the bond issue was simply, “We have an old building.”
The district can’t accept many more students. Kanable said each grade is capped at about 120 students, and there are just a few grades with room for more.
“We try to manage our class sizes where we know optimal learning can take place,” Kanable said.
The district also leaves room to allow a grade to grow as new families move into the district. This year, the district had to turn away 13 kindergarten students who applied for open enrollment.
Arcadia School District, located between Findlay and Fostoria, is also drawing a large number of students for a relatively small district.
Superintendent Laurie Walles said the district brought in 151 students and lost 41 students during the 2013-14 school year.
Open enrollment there means a net gain of $631,950, or about 7.68 mills in property taxes, allowing the district to have the lowest property taxes in Hancock County, she said.
While open enrollment students make up a significant percent of the Arcadia district’s enrollment of 631, Walles said those students are filling available seats. The district is able to accept those students without going over its class-size limits, she said.
Arcadia receives its highest number of open-enrollment students from Fostoria and Findlay. Students also come from the Van Buren and Liberty-Benton districts.
Walles said the outgoing students went to a mix of districts last year, but primarily to Findlay.
Bluffton School District also draws a lot of students. Last school year, it had 126 students arrive through open enrollment, while 35 Bluffton students went to other districts.
The district has a net gain of about $500,000 per year thanks to the funding brought in by open enrollment.
“We’ve had open enrollment for about 15 years and it’s been a very positive thing for the district. We’ve been able to accept a lot of great kids,” said Superintendent Greg Denecker.
Bluffton primarily attracts students from the Cory-Rawson, Ada, and Pandora districts. Denecker said many families are attracted by Bluffton’s state report card and performance index score, which ranks the district in the top 6 percent among districts statewide.
Vanlue Superintendent Rod Russell said his district’s goal each year is to “break even” on open enrollment, and last school year was very close: 51 students came and 54 students left. In the past, the district has typically lost about 10 more students than it gained.
Vanlue attracts students from the Carey, Findlay, New Riegel, Riverdale, Arlington and Fostoria districts. Vanlue students are going to Liberty-Benton, Arcadia, Carey, New Riegel, Findlay and Arlington.
Russell said some Vanlue students choose to go to other districts because they live closer to those schools.
“I don’t think you get a bad education anywhere in the area. I think all the schools are providing a good education. There’s a variety of reasons people leave. Sometimes, it’s because of housing. Sometimes, a kid is having a tough time at their school and they’re looking for a fresh start. Sometimes, it’s court-appointed,” he said.
While a small district can’t offer the variety of courses and extracurriculars that a larger district can, Russell said the Vanlue district’s decision to issue a laptop to each student, a program that will expand to grades 6-12 next school year, has helped it compete.
“The whole purpose (of the initiative) is to prepare kids for the rest of their lives. It has also enticed people who are looking hard at the academic side of it to come here because we’re one of the few schools in the county that issues laptops” to students, Russell said.
“We’re looking for better ways to improve how we educate our kids, do a better job, and improve our scores. That’s the reason we started this initiative. If that keeps us closer to (breaking even), then that’s a really good thing. If not, then hopefully we can continue anyway,” Russell said.
McComb School District lost 60 students to other districts last year but, similar to Vanlue, a lot of that has to do with geography, said Superintendent Meri Skilliter.
“One of the things for us is that we’re a very large district geographically … and some students are really just closer to other districts than they are to our school,” she said.
At the same time, the district brought in 40 open-enrollment students this past year.
“We’d like to have more coming in than going out. And we’re always competing in-house to do better and better. Obviously, 40 families or so believe we can provide a better education,” Skilliter said.
Cory-Rawson Superintendent Bob Hlasko agreed that geography has a lot to do with his district’s open-enrollment figures.
For two school years, Cory-Rawson took in more open-enrollment students than it sent out, but last school year saw a shift. The district brought in 71 students while losing 98.
“To be sure, (open enrollment) has forever changed the face of schools. School choice, in theory, is a positive, but I think most schools would state that we are now dealing with students transferring several times over the course of a year or several years, searching for an ‘ideal’ school setting,” Hlasko said.
“What results from these constant changes is that our staff has a hard time getting to really know their students, which obviously helps them more easily identify when a student is struggling, and that these students and families are not always active participants in the schools as much as we would like.
“I consistently hear from our community that the engagement of parents and students in schools is not what they remember from years past,” Hlasko said.
While open enrollment presents challenges, Hlasko said schools benefit from having students from varied backgrounds.
Arlington School District is gaining from open enrollment by bringing in about 15 more students than leave it. The district lost 32 students to open enrollment and brought in 47 during the past school year, said Kevin Haught, Arlington superintendent.
Arlington recently decided to change its half-day kindergarten to a full-day program in order to better compete with other districts.
“We’d see some kids go and come back, but we’d rather be able to keep these kids here for their entire educational experience,” Haught said.
Riverdale Superintendent Eric Hoffman said his district sees about 100 students leave, and 70 students come into the district per year. He declined to comment further.
Some districts have been able to turn an open enrollment loss around.
Ten years ago, when Superintendent Tim Myers came to Van Buren School District, it was losing money to open enrollment, mostly to Findlay City Schools.
“When I looked at it, I said that with our academic reputation, we shouldn’t be losing money. That’s crazy,” he said.
After Myers took a look at the district’s open enrollment policy and made some changes, Van Buren “went from losing probably $350,000 at that point, to making $900,000,” he said.
Open enrollment has grown so much over the past few years that Van Buren was unable to accept new students in many of its grade levels. During the 2013-14 school year, the district brought in 171 students, while losing 54.
“It’s been a very positive thing for the Van Buren School District … I attribute it to the academic reputation of this district. When people come here, they understand that academics are important and that we have a rigorous program,” Myers said.
Van Buren: http://vbschools.net
Open Enrollment Task Force’s annual report:
Colleen McCarthy contributed to the reporting in this story.
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