A group of mostly well-educated retirees, many owning expensive lakefront property, have launched a spirited informational campaign that threatens to scuttle an upcoming school levy if Coventry doesn’t ease off its open-enrollment policy.

Coventry Schools Taxpayers Accountability Coalition, or CSTAC, formed in 2013 to block a school construction bond issue.

Their efforts, then and now, include multiple letters to the editor — some published in the Beacon Journal — and $1,556 paid to the Suburbanite and the South Side Leader to print their message on 10,000 fliers and stuff them into mailboxes.

The group’s roughly 20 active members, who together pay more than $10,000 annually because of the renewal tax, have contributed roughly $100 each to amplify their collective voice.

The 34-year bond issue was hotly contested but passed on its third attempt. The measure is financing $28.3 million locally to build a new high school and convert the old high school into a K-5 building.

But as construction workers break ground on the partly state-funded project, CSTAC had turned its attention to what is typically a less confrontational renewal levy.

The five-year reoccurring tax was among 93 school renewals before Ohio voters in November. Eight failed. Coventry’s fared worst than most with 58 percent no votes.

And like the first two attempts to pass the bond issue, the district’s broad use of open enrollment again has sparked a public debate between taxpayers and school officials, each sounding similar in their accusations.

“The problem is they are putting out a massive amount of false and misleading information,” said Superintendent Russell Chaboudy, who rightly points out that the group’s figures — according to the state — are inflated.

“There are a lot of holes out there and distorted facts. People are emotional about their kids,” said CSTAC Treasurer Larry Ryba, who added that school officials have cherry-picked financial figures throughout the levy campaigns.

CSTAC alleges that Coventry taxpayers are subsidizing the education of open-enrolled students whose parents don’t live in or pay property taxes in Coventry.

Chaboudy stands firmly behind what he has always said: Open enrollment is a financial and academic boon. Incoming students bring with them higher test scores and more state funding than Coventry otherwise would receive.

Students are caught in the middle.

Should the levy fail, revenue would be forfeited, triggering a slew of program and staffing cuts. And because the state no longer picks up 10 percent of all new levies, replacing the lost revenue would cost local taxpayers even more in the future.

Hot topic

Open enrollment is big in the Akron area. School chiefs have sued each other as dollars and students throw budgets and racial compositions out of whack.

In Summit County, more than 7,000 students participate in open enrollment. A standard $5,800 moves with each student, with more money when special education is involved.

Akron Public Schools lose 1,830 students, the most in Ohio. Coventry captures 635 of those students.

A 2014 Beacon Journal study found that most of these students are white, less likely than their older peers in Akron to be poor and score better than their new peers in Coventry. A more recent study by the Mahoning Educational Service Center corroborated the paper’s academic findings.

Coventry receives state funding for 831 students who live in Akron and other school districts. That gain, like Akron’s loss, is the highest in Ohio. Meanwhile, 123 of Coventry’s own students leave through open enrollment. So the net result is that the district nets 708 additional students, or at least funding for them.

CSTAC has reported, inaccurately, that Coventry open enrolls 900 students.

But the rub, CSTAC argues, is that Coventry receives less state aid per open-enrolled student than it spends to educate the average student.

This is accurate. Coventry receives $5,460 on average for each open-enrolled student today. It spent $9,158 per student last year, according to state statistics retrieved by the Beacon Journal.

This is where CSTAC makes a simple calculation: multiply the roughly $3,700 difference by the 708 students (their number is even higher) and Coventry taxpayers are paying $2.6 million to educate other communities’ kids.

Chaboudy, however, aptly notes that open enrollment, when used appropriately, can maximize revenue by filling empty seats. A teacher with 20 students is easier to afford than a teacher with 15, the idea goes.

Plus, more students mean more educational options.

CSTAC admits it has only looked at the issue “strictly from a financial aspect.” Still, the group has moved away from a demand to abandon open enrollment. Instead, it says Coventry’s use of the program has gone too far, requiring extra classrooms and teachers, inflating the bottom line and costing local taxpayers.

Chaboudy disagrees.

Study needed

All of this confusion, along with an old lawsuit launched by white Akron families, has led lawmakers to investigate Ohio’s oldest publicly funded school choice program.

Statewide participation has doubled in the past decade.

For some schools, the program insulates school budgets from unexpected enrollment and funding changes, such as state aid, which changes every two years. But for net losers like Akron and Barberton, the program further clouds efforts to project enrollment or necessary staffing levels.

To better understand these concerns, Sen. Tom Sawyer, D-Akron, has introduced legislation in three General Assemblies, including the current one. His bills call for a comprehensive study of open enrollment.

“I really think that after 25 years we ought to know the consequences of what we’ve done,” Sawyer said, “but we don’t.”

Doug Livingston can be reached at 330-996-3792 or dlivingston@thebeaconjournal.com.