Coventry Local Schools Superintendent Rusty Chaboudy is conflicted about what to do with the district’s 755 open enrollment students.

“We’ve got the state auditor telling us to dismantle open enrollment by drastically reducing the number of students that we accept. And now, we have an expert questioning the data that led to that conclusion and saying open enrollment could be bringing a profit to the district,” Chaboudy said. “Our fiscal agent is telling us we need to make a decision by December. But we’re just not in a position to do that, given the conflicting information.”

Chaboudy’s dilemma arose on Monday, after he read an article published in a recent Ohio Education Policy Institute newsletter that raises concerns about the validity of the data used in a state auditor’s report to make a recommendation on open enrollment in the school district.

The author of the article, Columbus-based Economist Howard Fleeter, warned that other districts with open enrollment need to pay attention.

“The audit wasn’t done because of open enrollment, but because the district is in fiscal emergency. But the auditor’s conclusion zeroed in on open enrollment, giving this report broader implications for other school districts in the state,” Fleeter said. “The presumption in the state for a long time has been that open enrollment is a good idea. Now, the auditor is questioning whether, financially, it is a good idea.”

In July, the state auditor’s office recommended that Coventry cut the number of open enrollment students that it accepts in order to balance its finances. The audit suggests that the district reduce its number of (2015-2016) open enrollment students from 776 to a maximum of 116 to achieve a student-to-teacher ratio of 25:1 and to potentially save $1.6 million annually.

“My intuition on this is that maybe Coventry has more [open enrollment] kids than it should — but not six or seven times too many. To say they’ve got to reduce their number by 85 percent is surprising. It seems a little illogical,” said Fleeter, whose Columbus-based public policy research firm provides economic analyses. “It could be that the auditor is correct, but we need to do our due diligence to make sure the conclusion is supported by the data.”

Fleeter said he will assess the auditor’s data in the next few months to see if it was properly analyzed.

“The auditor is saying that the district is losing money because it is costing more to educate the (open enrollment) students than the district is receiving in state aid for those students,” Fleeter said. “My argument is it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s costing the district more because there are fixed costs that don’t change and shouldn’t be part of the formula.”

The auditor’s report showed that a resident student generates an average of $9,867 in state and local revenue for Coventry , compared to $5,997 in state-revenue only for each open enrollment student. Local tax dollars don't follow the student out of the home district.

On Tuesday, a spokesman for the Ohio Auditor’s office released the following statement, in response to Fleeter’s article: “While we have not had an opportunity to review Mr. Fleeter’s analysis, we stand by our work. We know we produced an objective, unbiased report to help the school district reform its policies.”

Fleeter said that even if the data used by the auditor is correct, there is a question of how to respond.

“I don’t think it’s practical to get rid of that many kids. They’re not widgets. You can’t just pull the plug and say: ‘OK. Go back to where you came from,’ ” Fleeter said. “Unwinding this thing makes a difference for real people and I’m really uncomfortable with punishing kids and their families because of this.”

Chaboudy agrees with Fleeter that a decision about open enrollment in the district is about more than dollars and cents.

“I think before Coventry or any other district can make a decision about open enrollment, we need to have more information, more facts and more legislative discussion,” Chaboudy said. “We need more guidance from the experts to get this right. I think we’re back to square one, until we can determine if open enrollment is a cost savings mechanism or whether it’s costing the district money.”

Colette Jenkins can be reached at 330-996-3731 or cjenkins@thebeaconjournal.com. She can be followed at www.twitter.com/ColetteMJenkins.