Big County Schools Competing for Students

The two biggest school districts in Door County are no longer competing with each other only on sports fields and with academic teams. Southern Door School District and Sturgeon Bay School District are now competing publicly for students and the tax dollars that follow those students through the open enrollment process.

As a new means of luring parents to enroll their children into the Southern Door School District, the school board approved the purchase of billboard advertising along Highway 57. The billboard, with a picture of a boy and two girls holding a book, reads: “Caring for the present…Preparing for the future. Southern Door Schools. Open enrollment Feb. 1 – 19.”

This billboard south of Sturgeon Bay raised eyebrows among educators.

Southern Door Superintendent Joseph Innis said the goal of the billboard was to promote the schools in a positive way.

“We need to remind the people we work with how important that work is, and what our purpose is,” Innis said. “We do have the open enrollment dates on there, but that’s not different from the ads in the newspaper from various districts or people on the radio talking about it.”

Sturgeon Bay School District has incorporated open enrollment numbers into the revenue side of its budget for a number of years, according to Superintendent Joseph Stutting. Each student enrolled in the district adds about $6,400 in tax dollars to the district’s budget. He said Sturgeon Bay continues to see positive open enrollment numbers – for the 2009-2010 school year 121 opted to enroll in and 76 open enrolled out. However, those numbers are not enough to sustain a large rural district with the necessary educational programming and extracurricular activities that create strong, well-rounded students.

“We as districts need to do a better job of helping each other and helping our students. I have a real fear over this whole marketing of school districts.” – Sturgeon Bay Superintendent Joe Stutting

“The [Sturgeon Bay] School Board decided February 8 to go back to the voters for another referendum to secure more money for programming,” Stutting said. “Revenue limits were designed to control property taxes, not to provide quality education for our youth. We live in an area where we are land rich and kid poor.”

Southern Door had 79 students open enroll into the district and 71 open enroll out to another district for the 2009-2010 school year, Innis said. Review of finances by the Southern Door School Board reassured them and Innis that the school is financially sound for another year; but it, too, will likely have to turn to voters soon for the financial support and boost a referendum will provide.

“We decided we can, without a large reduction, get by at least one more year without making any drastic program cuts,” Innis said. “We’ve been cutting here and there to get by. We always try not to go back to the taxpayers. But I know, that with the current funding formula, it may be necessary to maintain the quality of our school.”

Quality may be better than quantity, but it will not help to pay the bills for Door County school districts. Although the concept of a free public education is already loosely used, the idea may get even thornier if school districts have to start major marketing campaigns to entice students and parents into their schools.

“We formed a marketing committee at the beginning of this school year,” Stutting said. “Monroe is spending $100,000 to market their online school. That’s $100,000 of taxpayers’ money. Some online schools are giving kids laptops to use and money to pay for Internet connections at home as motivation to join their online schools. The Luxemburg-Casco School District is looking at hiring a PR person to market their school. Green Bay [had] a major TV campaign going for open enrollment. I would love to see legislation enacted limiting the amount of money schools can spend on advertising.

“We as districts need to do a better job of helping each other and helping our students,” Stutting said. “I have a real fear over this whole marketing of school districts.”