Ashland will open its schools to students outside the district, the School Board decided Monday.

Ashland will open its schools to students outside the district, the School Board decided Monday.

The board unanimously approved the first draft of a plan that allows outside students to transfer into Ashland schools without their home district's permission under the state's new open enrollment law.

"We just see this as a way to compensate for the declining enrollment," said Superintendent Juli Di Chiro. "It could be something that helps stop those numbers from dwindling "… and, really, even make a positive impact on our class sizes."

Ashland School District has faced declining enrollment numbers for the last 14 years, she said. That's bad news for the district budget, which is bolstered by funds from the state for each student enrolled.

The new legislation grants students the right to transfer to any school, inside or outside their home district, without permission from the home district, provided there's room and the target district has agreed to allow incoming transfers.

Ashland had projected enrollment to fall by about 60 students next academic year, meaning the district would receive about $630,000 less from the state.

"Just to put all things on the table, I actually advised that open enrollment was poor state policy," said Di Chiro during Monday's meeting, "but it obviously benefits us."

Medford School Board members on Monday rejected the idea, saying they believed the legislation approved in the 2011 session was "rushed" and did not provide benefits for students.

Ashland's sharp decline in enrollment forced the district to close Briscoe Elementary School in 2003 and Lincoln Elementary School in 2005. And the prolonged decline in enrollment has left considerable gaps to fill at nearly all of the district's grade levels.

In its initial draft for establishing open enrollment, the district estimated that the "optimal" amount of students it could admit through the process would be 103, and that would require hiring one additional fourth-grade teacher. But its facilities could handle up to 389 more students.

The district will not know exactly what numbers it will have to work with until after the April 1 application deadline.

Districts throughout the state have until March 1 to decide whether to allow transfers for the 2012-13 year, a deadline Ashland is determined to meet, said Samuel Bogdanove, the school district's director of student services, and member of its open enrollment committee.

Bogdanove said 72 people recently completed a survey for gauging the amount of interest parents have in enrolling their children in an Ashland school. Of those, 46 said they were "highly likely" to enroll their students in the Ashland district.

According to the survey results, 31 people said they were "interested in opportunities for academic excellence and challenge" as the primary reason for enrolling their kids in Ashland's schools.

"People that work in Ashland are probably going to be the most interested, because they are driving to work here every day anyway," said Di Chiro.

Bogdanove said the committee would have liked to have seen more participation in the survey, but now will move forward with spreading the word about open enrollment in Ashland.

Parents will have the option of requesting certain schools for their children to be admitted to, but there will be no guarantees, Di Chiro said. John Muir and Willow Wind are excluded from being requested, because they are special programs within the district.

Once a student is admitted through the open enrollment process, he or she could then submit a request to transfer to either of those two schools, she said.

"By opening the door to these kids, we're hoping that we can really get our class sizes to where we want them, at a really optimal level," said Bogdanove. "First and foremost, though, I think the primary interest of the board is to maintain the quality and range of programs that we offer our kids."

The School Board will review a second draft of the district's plan to allow open enrollment during its Feb. 13 meeting, when the plan is expected to be finalized, said Di Chiro.

Reach reporter Sam Wheeler at 541-499-1470 or email swheeler@dailytidings.com.