COVENTRY TWP. A controversy that has been ongoing with the Coventry Local School District had some new light shed on it, but it hasn't completely squashed the open enrollment debate.

The district recently completed a thorough look at open enrollment based on a recommendation from the auditor of state. The state Auditor’s Office released a performance audit in July that stated the district's open enrollment philosophy is losing more than $1 million each year.

Before a crowd of more than 400 people at Coventry High School Monday night, the findings of the district's months-long study was presented to the community.

The study, conducted by the district's Open Enrollment Committee, concluded changes to the district's open enrollment philosophy would be detrimental. Instead, it was recommended that the district update its open enrollment policy but maintain the current level of open enrollment students.

Committee members were in favor of that by a 10-2 vote. The school board recently also voted in favor of the recommendations.

THE REPORT

The report, which is more than 100 pages long, was compiled by Treasurer Matthew Muccio and Assistant Superintendent Lisa Blough. Superintendent Russell Chaboudy said that he and school board wanted to take a hands-off approach to this study.

Chaboudy said Muccio and Blough went separate directions in compiling the report and they both came to the same conclusion: Open enrollment has been a net financial positive for the district.

"Many people came to us asking why are you doing this report," Chaboudy said.

Chaboudy said the district has been audited 26 times since 1999 and only once has open enrollment been mentioned. He said open enrollment is not just important to Coventry, as schools across the state are looking into it.

As a part of the district's standing in fiscal emergency, the Open Enrollment Committee formed with 13 members to study the issue. The committee first met June 9, 2016, and was facilitated by Joe Iacano, superintendent of the Summit Educational Service Center. Other members included Jim Darby, resident; Lorene Reed, resident, alumnus and past Coventry teacher; Frank Archual, resident, grandparent representative whose daughter is a Coventry teacher; Chaboudy, superintendent; Shawn Welsh, resident and parent; Greg Smith, Coventry teacher representative; Jeff Angeletti, resident and parent; Bob Wohlgamuth, board president, resident, alumnus and Portage Lakes Career Center board member; Kim Richard, Ohio Department of Education, assistant director of financial analysis and commissions and commission chair; Blough, assistant superintendent, resident and parent; Vicki Tavenier, board member, resident and parent; Laura McGraw, resident, parent and commission member and Muccio, treasurer.

Blough said she has always heard the discussions about open enrollment and wondered what the truth was in regards to the district's long-standing philosophy of opening its classrooms to students who live outside Coventry Local School District boundries.

"We just wanted to run the numbers and see which way it was going to go," Muccio added.

FINDINGS

The district's report, which took months to complete, found that the costs associated with open enrollment students is approximately $1.7 million, not $5.6 million as the auditor suggested. The reason for the difference, according to Muccio, is that the Auditor's Office used generic estimates, while the district's report plugged in actual figures.

Based on the district’s report, the district is not losing $1 million each year, but generating approximately $4.5 million.

Muccio said he spent 200 hours working on the report, which he said required looking at the issue from a macro-economic perspective. He added that he was also determined to see how the Auditor's Office concluded that the district's costs associated with open enrollment came to $5.6 million.

The Auditor's Office, according to Muccio, arrived at the $5.6 million amount by diving the number of open enrolled students (782) by the total number of students in the district (2,076) to get to a 37.7 percent of district students being open enrollees. Percentages were also calculated for the number of special education students and for students transported in regards to open enrollment.

Muccio, however, said the auditor used a function code that had a mix of open enrollment students and resident students. The percentages gathered were then multiplied by expenses to determine the open enrollment cost of each line item.

The Open Enrollment Committee's report found 32 expenses that the auditor included, while not including revenues associated with them. Those included student fees paid for by parents, such as art fees and technology fees. The auditor, Muccio said, did not account for the revenue the district gets when parents pay for these fees, and instead listed the fees as expenses to the district. There also were several instances where the auditor did not account for money raised through fundraisers, scholarships, and grants.

In addition, the auditor did not use the correct excess cost revenue for 2015, and instead the 2014 amount was used. Excess costs are associated with the education of an elementary school or secondary school student with a disability and are greater than the average annual per-student expenditure. The correct amount for 2015 was $406,804 not $149,123, a difference of $257,681.

District officials also questioned how the Auditor's Office calculated cost savings the district would see through staff reductions. The report, they say, is based off a broad 37.7 percent, across-the-board reduction and doesn't take into account things such as contracts, tenure and certifications which would prevent the district from being able to making that level of cuts. And even if a 37.7 percent reduction of staffing was possible, officials say it wouldn't lead to a 37.7 percent in savings since the positions they legally could eliminate largely would be newer employees who are on the bottom of the salary scale.

Chaboudy, however, said the Auditor's Office didn’t error as much as it didn’t dig deep enough.

"The Auditor’s Office never would have the time or manpower to do this," Chaboudy said.

Tiered models

The district also explored what a resident-only district would look like in a model. In that resident-only model, a "very basic education" would be offered as the district would not be able to afford to offer certain programs offered now because of open enrollment students, according to Chaboudy.

Several tiered models were also examined looking at how a specific number of open enrolled students would effect finances. Those models show that the district benefits more at its current level of open enrollment than it would if it is significantly reduced.

"The issue is the auditor didn’t drill down deep enough into the data," Chaboudy said. "This topic is so important it needed drilled down to the basic level."

Chaboudy said the district will share its results with the Auditor's Office, but he doesn't know if there will be any response.

NOT CONVINCED

Despite all the hours put into the report, some community members especially those of the Coventry Schools Accountability Coalition (CSTAC) aren’t sold on the findings. The Open Enrollment Committee's two no votes on th receommendation came from CSTAC members.

CSTAC member Ron Reed said the report is not a committee report, per his discussions with Richard, but only a school report in which the numbers have not been verified.

"There are many questions regarding their validity and many red flags in my initial review," Reed said. "It appears costs for our native students are greatly exaggerated and costs of open enrollment students is grossly underestimated. It seems unlikely that the auditors made a $4 million error."

POLICY UPDATED

Along with the report saying Coventry Schools was losing money through open enrollment, the Auditor's Office also recommended the district update its policy on open enrollment following the performance audit.

Capping each grade level based on the number of students that could open enroll was explored, but with the resident population fluctuating, the district instead decided to make a capacity limit for each building.

The caps that were created are a total of 750 students at Coventry Elementary School, 700 at Coventry Middle School and 800 at Coventry High School. The policy was also cleaned up to make deadlines for enrolling more clear. Some of the language for the policy came from Hubbard Exempted Village Schools, which was lauded by the Auditor's Office for how it handles open enrollment.

The report also states the superintendent and treasurer are required to give a report on open enrollment each year before March 31.