For some parents, the decision to pull their children from one school district and send them to another is a matter of academics, athletics, convenience, even preference.
But for several local school districts, opting into the state's open enrollment system amounts to common dollars and cents. Many of them have found it's a way to generate income, offset or cut losses, and make the most of a system that has students crossing district, and in some cases, county lines.
In Ohio, open enrollment allows a student to attend school tuition-free in a district other than the district where his or her parents reside. The state allotment for each student is about $5,700. Because that funding goes with the student regardless of where he or she goes to school, the system can bring money into a school district or leave it with a fiscal dilemma.
"We started (open enrollment) in 2005 primarily as a revenue source," Howland Schools treasurer Tom Krispinsky acknowledged recently. "Even when you consider the number of students we lose through the same process each year, we still come out ahead."
And that, Krispinsky said, is reason enough to keep Howland's doors open wide to students from other school districts.
On the other side of the fiscal scale, Warren City and Youngstown City school districts are among the districts hardest hit by the system and left scrambling to offset budget gaps as they continue to lose students to other districts.
"It does get hard to project what you will actually have in your budget because the numbers are always fluctuating," Warren City Schools treasurer Angela Lewis said.
What makes it even more difficult is having nearby school districts waiting and willing to receive those students.
Austintown Superintendent Vince Colaluca, for one, has been outspoken about his district's decision to make the most of the system. He said voters in the district were told if they did not pass a 2.9-mill operating levy, school officials would have to look at other methods of increasing revenues, including open enrollment.
"We were very open about it," Colaluca said. "The community turned us down."
At the time, since 1999, the district lost about $9 million based on students leaving the district. The next year, the district approved open enrollment status in an attempt to try to recover some of its losses. The district gained about 200 students, but lost around 220, which gave it a $114,000 loss.
Since then, though, the numbers have started stacking in Austintown's favor.
"Last year we were able to lower the number of students we lost by offering other academic options, including our new online school," Colaluca said.
Colaluca said open enrollment, combined with the district's online school, both have worked to stop money from leaving the district. This year the district will bring in 525 open enrollment students, many of whom live in Youngstown, and lose 165.
"This year Austintown local schools are in the black in regards to students coming in the district compared to those leaving the district," Colaluca said, noting a 1-mill levy in Austintown is worth about $600,000. "That will be close to four mills in operating levies."
Colaluca said his staff has had to realize that the school district is not a monopoly and modern education, at least in the Mahoning Valley, is a competitive process.
"We have to meet our customers' needs," he said. "We are going to work on the professional development for our staff on customer services. We have to make our customers feel good."
But as Austintown and other districts fight to attract more students, others, including Liberty, are opting out by closing their doors to nonresidential students.
Although Liberty has had an open enrollment policy since 1993, the district didn't start accepting nonresidential students until 2003. The district changed its policy last year after taxpayers overwhelmingly made it clear they were against it.
Nonresidential students, the majority of whom live in Youngstown, who were attending Liberty at the time, will be permitted to continue doing so, Liberty treasurer James Wilson said. However, the district is no longer accepting new open enrollment students.
Liberty School Board of Education president Diana M. DeVito said although her vote reflected what residents wanted and made clear through the results of a random, districtwide survey, she doesn't believe that the district should abandon open enrollment altogether.
"There's this perception that any behavior problems we have are because of nonresidential students," she said. "But we also did an internal survey that proved that was not the case at all, and that most of our behavioral problems did not come from open enrollment students, but from residential students."
DeVito is "very concerned" about the impact eliminating open enrollment would have on the district's finances.
"I believe all of our neighboring school districts have open enrollment," she said. "It's a very uncomfortable seat to be in when you have students leaving to go to those other schools, but you're not bringing any in. I don't know how the new board will proceed with this issue, but I can guarantee it will be revisited. It could all change again. It's something we will definitely be looking at."
The general rule is that school districts are permitted to accept the number of nonresidential students they are able to accommodate and serve, said Patrick Gallaway, Ohio Department of Education spokesman. For some school districts, such as Howland, the system generates a profit as the district continues gaining more students than it loses each year.
Although it is up to each district to adopt its own open enrollment policy, once students are accepted into a school district they are to be treated as any other student, said former Liberty School Board member Gloria Lang, who said she voted to abandon open enrollment because that's what the taxpayers wanted.
During a recent visit to the Mahoning Valley Robert Sommers, director of the Ohio Governor's Office of 21th-Century Education, promoted open enrollment as one more option parents have when it comes to choosing how, and where, their children are educated. The system also serves as a way to foster "healthy competition" among school districts giving them more incentive to step it up academically.
Chad L. Aldis, executive director of School Choice Ohio, agrees.
"With more and more schools opting toward open enrollment every school district has to look at ways to improve, ways to compete with other schools if they want to keep students," Aldis said. "If they don't, they will lose out as more and more students leave to go to other, more academically sound schools."
For parents like Danyel Minotti, it all comes down to having a choice. Although her family lives in Youngstown, Minotti's four children go to school in Austintown.
"It's an opportunity to send (the children) to a better school, to a safer school," she said. "I saw an opportunity to do that, and I took it."
But Connie Hathorn, Youngstown superintendent, said his district is fighting back by working hard to bring his students home. This year Hathorn restructured the school district by converting one of its high schools into a Visual and Performing Arts Academy in an effort to retain students, bring former ones home and, he hopes, attract new ones.
"It's not easy when you see your students leaving," Hathorn said. "But you have to realize parents have the right to choose. We're working hard here, making some changes, working to give them a reason to choose Youngstown."
Meanwhile, in Howland Krispinsky acknowledged that once the process starts, and school districts become dependent on the money, the easier it is to stay locked into the system.
"Sometimes I have a hard time figuring out why some parents, some students, would want to leave our school district, which has a highly rated academic program, and go to another school," Krispinsky said. "It's hard to understand, it's hard to compete. But it's their choice and we're competing. We're all competing for them to choose us."
Tribune Chronicle reporter Raymond L. Smith contributed to this story.