Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Time to Think About Open Enrollment?

The Middletown Journal published a story recently about how public school districts in Ohio are increasingly using open enrollment to fill empty seats and increase their revenue.

"Open enrollment" is a term used to indicate that a school district will accept students from outside its geographic boundaries. This is currently not the policy of Hilliard City Schools - a student must be a legal resident of our school district to attend our schools (see Policy JEC).

I wrote about this a year ago, when Reynoldsburg City Schools decided to allow open enrollment. My observation then was that to a public school district, the change to open enrollment by another nearby public school district is the same as if a new charter school had opened. By that I mean that when a student transfers out of the student's home district to attend either a charter school or another public school district, the chunk of money the home school district receives from the State of Ohio that's associated with the student goes with him. So for those districts who lost kids to Reynoldsburg, it had the same fiscal impact as if they had gone to a charter school.

I'm not sure exactly what that amount of money is under the new school funding mechanism, but let's say it's on the order of $5,000 per student.

My understanding is that this has been generally a positive experience for Reynoldsburg schools. They were able to fill some empty seats, which means more revenue and virtually no cost. Conversely, the home districts for those students now have more empty seats, and it's unlikely their costs diminished to any significant degree. The students who transferred to Reynoldsburg were generally highly motivated kids who performed well and behaved well - another kind of loss to the home district.

According to this story from Middletown, ten of the eleven school districts in Butler County have gone to open enrollment, including Lakota Local Schools, a district of 18,000 students with demographics very much like ours. So what has this meant to Lakota?

First thing to clarify: a district needs to offer open enrollment in order to gain students from other districts. A district can lose students to other districts regardless of its own enrollment policies. In other words, Hilliard City Schools can lose students to another school district with open enrollment, even though we do not ourselves have open enrollment.

This story reports that Lakota has had a drop in enrollment of about 1,500 students since the the 2009/10 school year. Those aren't necessarily students lost to other districts, but rather more likely represents a drop of the total number of students within their borders. Open enrollment is a good way to offset that kind of organic loss, and for the coming year, Lakota has 123 requests for enrollment by students outside their district. If my $5,000/student number is in the ballpark, this will generate about $600,000 more in state funding - new dollars raised without any new taxes on their community.

But something more subtle is going on in Butler County. The school district borders drawn long ago now have diminished meaning, since every family in their county has the choice of any school district to which to send their kids. In other words, the school districts have to compete for students, and not with tiny charter schools, but with other school districts with varying ranges of offerings.

It's still not quite a free market. While a public school district no longer has the exclusive right to serve all kids in within its borders, it does retain the exclusive right to collect property taxes within its borders. They also retain the exclusive right to construct school buildings within their own borders (exempting charter schools). So if a kid lives on one district, and wants to attend a school operated by another, that kid needs to figure out the transportation problem. It's not like competing districts can build on the same block. That can be an impediment for elementary and middle school kids, but lots of high school kids can drive.

I wonder what would happen in our region if more of the school districts chose to use open enrollment as a way to raise revenue. At first, it would make sense only to districts which have available capacity. That rules out Olentangy, which has been growing almost too fast to keep up.

But I wonder what districts like Worthington and Upper Arlington might do.

In the case of Worthington, enrollment has been declining in recent years. That community went through its big growth spurt starting in the 80s through the 90s, and now most of those kids have graduated. Without a lot of developable land left to house new families, they may be entering a time when their enrollment permanently settles at a lower level. As a highly respected district that shares a lot of its border with Columbus City Schools, Worthington might see something like Reynoldsburg - an influx of motivated kids who will help keep their performance high, while also bringing along a nice chunk of state money.

UA is in a different situation. The growth spurt for UA was decades ago, and they've already gone through their downsizing (e.g. Wellington School is built on the grounds of the former Fishinger Elementary). They have no more developable land, unless OSU sells off big tracts of their holdings, but are seeing a fairly steady turnover as the elderly are selling their homes to young families, which is keeping enrollment from collapsing.

They're also are having some challenges getting a levy passed. Their last one was defeated, and there appears to be ongoing resistance to the next one. They could use some money.

Would UA consider open enrollment as part of the solution?  Their northern and eastern borders are shared with Columbus Schools, and I suspect there are lot of families in there who would love to have their kids attend UA schools while paying Columbus school taxes. Would the people of UA be willing to let those kids fill some empty seats and in order to garner a little more revenue?  I'm guessing not.

What about our community?  We do have some capacity in some of our schools. And we have a couple of weird pockets of homes within our borders which are actually part of Columbus schools (because of the Win-Win Agreement), occasionally to the surprise of the buyers. For example, there a few dozen homes around Darby Creek Elementary which are served by Columbus Schools.

Should we accept a limited number of kids via open enrollment, knowing that in these cases, it really would be the "Hilliard Schools, Columbus School Taxes" scenario many mistakenly believe already exists?  It's not an irreversible decision. We can offer open enrollment for a year or two, then shut it down again. A hundred kids would be a half-million in new revenue, and little incremental cost.

I wonder what would happen if every school district in our region went to open enrollment, as they have done in Butler County. Who would be the winners, and who would be the losers?


  1. Worthington has some form of open enrollment for children of employees......

  2. It seems like an attractive option, with little down side. I assume we could open enrolment for specific ages or buildings where we had room, correct? The other question I'd have is what happens if we take these kids one year and then change policy the next. Or what happens from one year to the next, do kids who got in one year get preference the next? It would make sense for the kids' sake (which I would hope would be our priority), but it may not for the district's sake.

    These things would have to be thought out first.

    1. My understanding is that we can put just about any restriction on open enrollment we might want as to number of students and grade levels.

      Nor do we have to guarantee that once admitted, a student will be allowed to continue for subsequent years.

      This is the inter-district policy adopted by Reynoldsburg City Schools.

  3. Paul...For the record, School officials in the Reynoldsburg City School District have constructed several schools in the Licking Heights Local School District, and created a very litigious "Win-Win Agreement" that has only benefitted Reynoldsburg.

    1. Interesting. I assume Reynoldsburg did this with the consent of Licking Heights, perhaps through the agreement you mentioned.

      Are you sure those buildings aren't within the Reynoldsburg School District boundaries, in the same way our Horizon Elementary is in the City of Columbus, but on a parcel which has always been in the Hilliard School District?

    2. Is this the matter you were speaking of? Wow. Too bad the payments under the Win-Win Agreement aren't determined by which school district the kids choose to attend. We have to 'split' the tax money with Columbus, but get all the kids.

  4. I would love to see open enrollment in the Hilliard City Schools. We live in the Hayden Run/Cosgray area and am fed up with Columbus City Schools. My son started in Hilliary Schools and I was lied to by the salesman when I bought our current house. I will keep an eye out on this and hope it happens in Hilliard soon.

    1. You could probably take legal action against the company the salesman worked for if you can prove that you were intentionally given bad information about the school district your home would be in. You wouldn't be the first to have been lied to in this regard. But I have no first hand knowledge of anyone who has successfully brought such a lawsuit.

      Some folks have the fear that open enrollment would somehow weaken the district, by allowing lower income kids into our schools. I don't buy it. Kids participate in open enrollment only because they're motivated to seek a new different school and bear the transportation costs to get there.

      Athletic matters end up having a significant influence. That is, could one district "pack" its athletic teams by recruiting top athletes from other districts? Weird things can happen. For example, a kid in a district with multiple high schools is assigned to School A when he wants to play for School B. The district does not allow intradistrict transfers. The solution is then to move out of the district and apply for admission to School B.

  5. This story is worth a look... See how Reynoldsburg schools are making Open Enrollment benefit their district.


    1. Thanks for the link. This is something we need to keep in mind.

  6. I really hope to see this come to fruition within the next several years. We live right along the south border of Hilliard in Galloway and are therefore assisgned to Southwestern. I am planning on sending my daughter to private school but would love the option of Hilliard Schools.

  7. I also live off Hayden Run Rd/Cosgray and would LOVE my children to be done with online home-schooling and finally be able to attend a school; I refuse to send them to any school that is not capable standard wise (which i hear the school in columbus is horrible!). I am looking into trying to obtain a Variance for my children; but Hilliard School District is such snobby pricks (excuse my lang) they refuse children an education when the children live in there zoning area! BS! (if you look on the map, we are outlined in the blue area, but they still have us in Columbus, I just do not get why it is like this.. I really hope people get their heads out of their asses and do something about this!)

    Anyhow... If, let's say, I worked at a hilliard school then my children can attend that school?

    1. Each school district in Ohio gets to decide whether to restrict enrollment to only kids living within the borders of the school district, or to offer "open enrollment." Hilliard City Schools has decided to operate with the first policy.

      The reasons are simple: if you don't live within our school district, you don't pay our taxes. I suspect that where you live is in the Columbus City School District, meaning your tax dollars support the Columbus City Schools.

      It is true that a portion of your state income taxes goes into a big pot that is redistributed by the state government, and in recognition of that, when a student attends a school district other than the one in which the student lives, the state reallocates the state portion of the funding associated with the student to the district where the student actually attends, from the district in which the student lives.

      Districts with idle capacity may chose to offer open enrollment as way to fill that idle capacity. Here in central Ohio, Reynoldsburg is one of those districts.

      In growing school districts like Hilliard, capacity has to be reserved for the folks living in our school district, and for new residents who may move in. If you travel around our district, you will see that single family homes, condos, and apartments are again being built, and a number of new projects are in the planning and approval process. I'm not concerned about unused capacity - I'm worried about when we have to start building again.

      If you want to send your address to savehilliardschools@msn.com, I'll be happy to look up your parcel on the County Auditor's website, and confirm which school district you live in. The maps you looked at are not meant to be accurate to the parcel level. If you are a homeowner, the agent who sold you your property should have been clear about which school district it is in. If that was misrepresented, you may have legal recourse.

      If you are a renter, you might want to consider moving within the school district.

      I wish the American public school system were organized differently such that a kid's ZIP code wasn't the primary determinant as to where that kid went to school. But it's the system we have, and my primary duty is to represent the folks who elected me.

    2. In answer to your last question: yes, there are policies which allow the children of some or all employees of the district to attend Hilliard Schools.

  8. So does Hilliard city schools now support open enrollment ?

    1. At this time no, and I would not be in favor it as long as school funding continues to work the way it does. It wouldn't be fair for the taxpayers in HCSD to admit students from households where HCSD taxes aren't being paid.

  9. Anyone know if there are any recent updates or upcoming revisions to HCSD's policy on open enrollment?