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Geoff Palmer: Open Enrollment is Not the Silver Bullet
November 7, 2013 | No Comments

About 150 parents, students and community members attended the West Geauga Schools' Oct. 30 community forum to address concerns about its open enrollment practice, which…

About 150 parents, students and community members attended the West Geauga Schools’ Oct. 30 community forum to address concerns about its open enrollment practice, which allows about 260 students from other communities to attend West Geauga for additional revenue.

Superintendent Geoff Palmer carried the ball for the board of education and school administration during the two-and-a-half-hour meeting.

“Approximately 80 percent of the school districts in the state have some sort of open enrollment and two-thirds of those use statewide open enrollment,” Palmer said. “Open enrollment is not the silver bullet for declining enrollment. It’s a way to slow down the decline while continuing to provide quality education. It’s not a parachute.”

He added, “We have to look at the long-term. People have divided opinions. It isn’t perfect for everyone.”

Palmer explained that Ohio is experiencing decreased resident enrollment due to an aging population and smaller families.

Without open enrollment students, the school would lose about $1.2-$1.4 million in funding, which Palmer said could mean cuts in teachers and elective subjects, such as advanced placement and honors classes.

It could lead to larger overall class sizes, he said.

“The district has done a good job in managing its finances,” Palmer said. “It isn’t just about keeping teachers’ jobs, it’s about what you want to be as a school district. Do we want to be a school known for chopping teachers every year? Do we want to be in a slash and burn mode?”

Palmer presented a chart showing declining resident student population and the increasing number of admitted open enrollment students since its inception in 2008.

The chart indicated that even with open enrollment, the student population has declined from about 2,600 students to less than 2,200.

Without open enrollment the decline, would have been to nearly 1,900.

“Rather than have a number in mind on how many open enrollment student we will accept, we determine the number of kids we can educate per class and can adjust the number of nonresident students,” Palmer said. “With open enrollment students, our added costs may be as small as the cost of textbooks. We don’t add teachers.”

The majority of West Geauga’s current open enrollment students are from Richmond Heights, Newbury and the Lyndhurst/South Euclid district, according to data released by the school.

In answer to attendees’ concerns, Palmer said, “They outscore our kids on state testing and don’t drag down our test scores and averages.”

Palmer said every open enrollment student has to reapply to attend West Geauga each year.

Some parents and community members have asked the school to limit its open enrollment to neighboring communities or to consider merging with a neighboring district, such as Newbury.

Palmer said West Geauga had talked to a neighboring district about a merger, but that district said it was not interested at this time.

He said legally, schools can merger, which means that one school gives up its identity or they can consolidate, which means that both schools give up their identity and create a new one.

“It’s not an easy thing and there can be hard feelings,” he said. “The benefit of living here is that you can send your kids to our school with no questions asked.”

Palmer said with further declines in enrollment, the district may have to look at other measures, such as closing an elementary school building.

He said that a restructure of the buildings would involve community discussions.

“We have to look at what’s out there,” he said. “Our open enrollment policy is reviewed annually by the school board.”

The crowd was mostly polite and wanted to hear the presentation.

Note cards were distributed for attendees to write down their questions, which were grouped by commonality and answered by Palmer.

He said some of the questions required more research and would be posted on the district’s website over the coming weeks.

When asked if open enrollment leads to decreased property values, he replied, “If we continue our quality of education at our current high level, we won’t bring down property values.”

When asked if open enrollment students are making class sizes too large at the elementary grades, Palmer said, “Some teachers have grouped students based on their needs, which has created classes with 31 students and 14 students. We will be looking into this.”

One woman asked what could be done to create a more welcoming environment for the current open enrollment students.

Palmer said it was unfortunate that some community members have set an unpleasant tone.

“When they get here (to West Geauga), there’s no difference,” he said. “When they get to school, they are all our kids. If they’re here, they’re our kids to educate.”

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