Open enrollment for school districts can be a way for school districts to shore up or even improve their budgets by maintaining school enrollment numbers or increasing them.
But locally, most school districts are losing money from the practice.
Open enrollment allows students to attend a school that isn’t their home school, if the school they wish to transfer to accepts the practice. Open enrolled student funding, currently around $6,000 per student per year, follows the student. That amount tends to be higher than state funding for students in their home district because schools receive the full state grant for open enrollment students. Resident student funding can be lower because the state’s school funding formula factors in the home district’s ability to raise local dollars through taxes.
The bottom line can suffer if a district loses more students than it gains. Ohio State Auditor Dave Yost released a report at the end of November about the issue, noting that a school district must weigh the benefits of potentially having more students in the district with the costs associated to educate them.
“Open enrollment is a complex equation with no single solution,” Yost said. “School districts considering this educational option should tailor policies to their priorities, constantly monitor their outcomes and adjust accordingly.”
In Champaign County, Graham Local Schools, Triad Local Schools and Urbana City Schools have seen more of their students leave than they have brought in through the program so far this school year. However, the number of students both leaving and coming in have fluctuated in past years, with some years coming out positively for their finances.
West Liberty-Salem Local Schools has more students coming into the district than going out so far this school year.
Ohio’s General Assembly approved open enrollment into law in 1989, according to the auditor’s report. The report notes open enrollment has grown from more than 33,000 students in 2003 to more than 71,000 in 2013.
Graham started offering open enrollment in the mid 1990s, Superintendent Kirk Koennecke said. The district has varied over the years with the number of students it receives and loses to open enrollment. Most years the district loses more students than it gains. As of the current school year through November, the district brought in approximately 100 students, but lost approximately 132 students, leaving a shortfall of students. The district estimated it is losing $173,222.49 as of November due to open enrollment.
Most students coming to Graham are from neighboring districts. Koennecke said the district tends to lose more students to community schools or online schools, which has impacted the budget.
Triad first offered open enrollment in the 1995-96 school year, Triad Superintendent Chris Piper said. The first year, the district brought in 20 students and lost 20 students through open enrollment. So far this year, the district has 81 students coming in and 95 leaving through the program, generating $486,000 but losing an estimated $570,000, if basing figures on $6,000 per student.
Urbana City Schools began offering open enrollment in the 1993-94 school year, according to Superintendent Charles Thiel and Treasurer Mandy Hildebrand. This year, the district so far has 81 students enrolled from outside the district, bringing in an estimated $480,486.92. The district has generally been running a net loss of students with open enrollment, ranging from 82 to 117 in net students lost. For the current year, the district is seeing a net loss of 172 students; the estimated funding loss to the district for that is $964,039.57, Hildebrand said.
Since the district is filling empty seats from open enrollment, Thiel and Hildebrand said they were not considering dropping the option.
Open enrollment costs include transporting students, materials, personnel, employee benefits and equipment, superintendents say. All superintendents said their policy is to only bring in students if they have space in that particular grade level, so that staffing levels are not impacted.
Despite financial losses, superintendents said districts are not looking at dropping open enrollment.
“Open enrollment allows for a more diverse student population and can strengthen our community,” Koennecke said. “We want new families to learn about our community. Open enrollment allows Graham to promote its unique career and college preparatory programs, as well as our high quality activities and athletic programs and our five-star rated preschool.”
Piper said he thinks students from other districts are a benefit: “The benefits to allowing open enrollment at Triad are benefits the students themselves bring to our schools, and the state funding share for each that attends our schools through open enrollment.”
West Liberty-Salem is one area district seeing more students coming in than leaving, Superintendent Kraig Hissong said. The district started offering open enrollment in 2004. This year, the district has 223 students coming into the district and 37 leaving, and 18 students are being sent to charter schools. Overall, that leaves the district approximately 168 students in the positive, bringing in an estimated $986,041 this year, Hissong said.
Since the district is seeing a positive benefit from open enrollment, it does not plan to drop the option, he said.
“In general, we offer open enrollment to complement the programs and offerings we provide to our resident children and families,” Hissong said. “By only open enrolling students where space is available in each classroom, we are able to prevent rooms from being overcrowded, but still have full sections of classrooms. This allows us to operate more efficiently and recoup dollars that we would have lost to students that choose to open enroll out of our district or attend a charter school. It also allows us to maintain a consistent number of class sections so we are better able to maintain courses and programming that otherwise might have to be cut or reduced if our resident population of students were to decrease.”
To view the auditor’s report, visit http://bit.ly/2gbJzfX .
Casey S. Elliott may be reached at 937-652-1331 ext. 1772 or on Twitter @UDCElliott.