COVENTRY TWP. Coventry Local Schools leaders and the State Auditor's Office apparently don't see eye to eye on the financial impact of the district's open enrollment policy.
In a letter to the state's Financial Planning and Supervision Commission dated March 24, the auditor's office says an open enrollment study the district compiled "isn't credible" and "defies common sense."
The letter, which includes Auditor Dave Yost's name and signed by Chief Deputy Auditor Robert Hinkle, was obtained through a public records request by Coventry Schools Taxpayers Accountability Coalition (CSTAC), a political action committee that steadfastly has opposed Coventry Schools' leadership due to what it believes is the district's excessive open enrollment policy.
The differing opinions on Coventry's open enrollment policy dates to July, when the state auditor released a performance report that shows Coventry loses about $1 million a year through its policy of taking in hundreds of out-of-district students. That report prompted the district to form an Open Enrollment Committee, which spent months examining Coventry's policy and, led by Treasurer Matthew Muccio and Assistant Superintendent Lisa Blough, put together its own report that concluded the district makes $2.8 million from open enrollment each year.
That internal report, which didn't include any major changes to the district's existing open enrollment policy, was recommended to the district's Board of Education in February for approval by a 10-2 vote. The two no votes came from the two CSTAC members on the Open Enrollment Committee.
In the March 24 letter to the Financial Planning and Supervision Commission, the auditor's office was adamant in its rebuttal to the district’s report. Because Coventry Schools is in fiscal emergency, the Financial Planning and Supervision Commission has been appointed to oversees district finances.
"While two analyses can vary somewhat in their methodology and assumptions, and this will lead to some discrepancies in conclusions, this $3.8 million discrepancy is of a magnitude indicating that one of the analyses is very wrong," the letter stated. "The Ohio Auditor of State stands by its work, and finds that Coventry's alternative analysis defies common sense."
In 2015, Coventry admitted 782 students via open enrollment, the most in the state, and those students made up 37 percent of the district's population. Out-of-district students each bring $5,800 in state support to the district, which the auditor said is far less than what the district spends to educate each student.
"The only way this can be a paying proposition is if these open enrollment students can be assimilated without forcing the district to add significant costs in teachers, classrooms, services and other resources to educate them," the auditor's office letter stated. "The moment these additional costs surpass $5,800 per out-of-district student, the district and its taxpayers are losing money, not gaining it."
Superintendent Russell Chaboudy said the district stands by its more than 100-page report. He questioned how much time the auditor's office spent reviewing the district's report.
"We continue to work with the auditor's office on why there are differences in the reports," Chaboudy said.
In an email response to whether the auditor's office reviewed Coventry's report, Yost's press secretary, Beth Gianforcaro, said the office spent "days reviewing (Coventry's) conclusions, which resulted in the letter of (March) 24."
Gianforcaro also said the office "stands willing to work with Coventry, just as it does with any governmental entity in the state."
In February, Muccio pointed out what he believes were several flaws in the auditor's report, saying the district's report found 32 instances in which the auditor included expenses associated with open enrollment while not accounting for revenue generated through student fees. Muccio also said the auditor used a "function code" that contained a mix of open-enrolled and resident students in its report. On top of that, he said the auditor — using the wrong year's worth of data — miscalculated the cost of educating students with disabilities by $257,681.
Also, district officials say the auditor's report consisted of a generic 37.7 percent worth of across-the-board staffing reductions. Muccio and Blough, however, each said that is simply not feasible for a multitude of reasons, mainly due to how the union contracts are structured and through the need to have a level of administration in each building. And even if the district could make 37.7 percent cuts in staffing levels, officials said it wouldn't lead to a 37.7 percent in savings because the positions they could eliminate legally largely would be newer employees who are lower on the salary scale.
Chaboudy also said during the release of the district's report to the community in February that a resident-only model — or even significantly reducing open enrollment — would force the district to cut specialized programs and, in turn, only afford Coventry to offer a "a very basic education."
The letter from Yost's office stands by its findings that open enrollment — in the capacity to which Coventry relies on it — creates a financial drain, again saying "it defies common sense" to increase enrollment by 58 percent without adding teachers, classrooms, bus trips and other services.
"In a number of expense categories, such as regular instruction, special instruction, administration, pupil transportation and a variety of other support services, the district argues that its costs for these items would be the same even if Coventry admitted no open enrollment students, as if adding or subtracting 782 students — more than a third of the district's total enrollment — makes no difference in the cost of doing business. This isn't credible."
The letter goes on to say that Coventry is in "serious fiscal difficulties" that can only be addressed "with a willingness to face the fiscal facts."
"The district's open-enrollment policy is harming the district, not helping it," the auditor's letter says in ending. "The sooner this is recognized and reforms are put in place, the sooner the district will improve service to the district’s students and taxpayers."