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Paynesville Press - September 11, 2002

Enrollment continues decline

By Michael Jacobson

Opening-day enrollment continued to decline - for the eighth consecutive year - when classes in the Paynesville Public Schools resumed on Tuesday, Sept. 3. K-12 enrollment dropped to 1,140 in 2002-03, down 62 students from a year ago.

This is the lowest enrollment in District #741 since at least 1990.

The district lost 43 to graduation. (119 graduating seniors in the Class of 2002 were replaced by only 76 kindergarteners.) The district also lost a net 12 students in grades K-5, gained three in grades 6-8, and lost 10 in grades 9-12, for a net loss of another 19 students. Enrollment is at a decade-long low in each school building: elementary, middle, and high school.

Enrollment is key to the school's finances because the state essentially pays the district around $5,000 per pupil. Getting the school district's general fund out of debt remains the top priority, said superintendent Howard Caldwell, a goal made more difficult by declining enrollment. "It's so hard to work your way out of a debt situation," he explained, "because you still have to have programming for the bulk of the students."

In addition, said Caldwell, enrollment is much more fluid these days, with society being more mobile and students having more options (like open enrollment and post-secondary option). The enrollment typically changes from the projections to the actual numbers that arrive for school in the fall.

District #741 Enrollment

GRADE00-01 01-02 02-03
K84 86 76
1st63 80 75
2nd71 66 82
3rd75 73 61
4th90 77 71
5th91 93 81
TOTAL (K-5)474 475 446
6th99 94 94
7th106 99 94
8th99 110 101
TOTAL (6-8)304 303 289
9th114 95 104
10th102 110 100
11th122 100 104
12th97 119 97
TOTAL (9-12)435 424 405
TOTAL (K-12)1,213 1,202 1,140

This year, the district expected a loss of 50 students to graduation. The actual enrollment loss was 62 students, somewhat of a surprise, said Caldwell. "When you have such a tight budget, as it is, any dollar amount that's different is difficult," he explained.

Still, the additional enrollment loss this year was not as large as two years ago. In September 2000, the district expected a drop of 50 students but lost 75 in all, 25 more than expected.

The school district has to budget for the year (in June) and decide on staffing and programming before the actual enrollment is known in September, added Caldwell. "You're always a year behind in your planning process, or a year ahead, depending on how you look at it, but you don't know exactly how many students you have until September," he explained.

In April, district voters did approve a $415 per pupil unit levy, approving additional taxation which will provide extra state and local funding to the school district. The district expects an additional $560,000 from the levy, but not until next year, the 2003-04 school year. In the last decade, the district's enrollment peaked in the 1994-95 school year with 1,429 K-12 students, an average of 110 students per grade. That enrollment helped the district escape its financial trouble from the early 1990s and helped build the $1.67 million general budget balance in 1996-97.

Opening day enrollment chart Enrollment at the Paynesville Public Schools has been declining for eight years. It dropped another 62 students to 1,140 to start the 2002-03 school year. Since each student is worth around $3000 in revenue from the state, declining enrollment continues to affect the district's finances.

The last eight incoming kindergarten classes, though, have averaged only 80 students at Paynesville Area Elementary School. These smaller enrolling grades at PAES are the heart of the enrollment decline. Whereas District #741 used to have around 100 students per grade, over the past five years, the district has averaged less than 75 students in the first grade.

Unless incoming kindergarten classes start returning to the 100-pupil range, the district will continue to decline in enrollment for the next six or seven years. At that point - with an average of 75 to 80 students per grade - the district's total enrollment could be around 1,000 students.

So far, the bulk of the enrollment decline has been at the elementary school, which has also been hit by a larger share of the budget cuts. Ten years ago, enrollment at PAES was around 650 students, 200 more than presently.

Meanwhile, enrollments in the middle and high school have stayed more stable, but have shown some decline in the last few years. Middle school enrollment peaked in the 1990s in 1995-96 with 360 students. This year, enrollment in the middle school dropped below 300 (to 289) for the first time since the new middle school opened in the early 1990s.

At the high school, enrollments have been quite healthy, averaging 445 students over the last eight years. The high was 467 students in the 1998-99 school year. But, now, enrollment at PAHS threatens to drop below 400, with the 2002-03 enrollment starting at 405.

Enrollment declines in the middle and high schools should continue as the smaller grades currently in the elementary school work their way through the system. As this happens, the need for programming adjustments will focus more on the upper grades. "I would see that the next six or seven years we're going to see adjustments at the middle and high school levels," said Caldwell.

According to the district's plan to escape its general fund debt (as filed with the state), the district did plan to make $100,000 in budget cuts for 2003-04, $100,000 for 2004-05, $250,000 in 2005-06, and $250,000 in 2006-07. While the levy passage in April should lower the financial need to do these reductions, the district will still have to adjust its programming to account for declining enrollment, said Caldwell, who also thinks the district needs to be very careful when considering programs for reinstatement.

He stressed the need to rebuild a budget balance and warned against resuming a "fat checkbook" mindset. Thinking the school district has plenty of money and doesn't need to cut expenses when faced with declining enrollment doesn't work, said Caldwell, citing the current budget crisis.

While the area does have potential for residential growth, Caldwell isn't sure that the area can grow out of the enrollment problems. "It takes a lot more homes to produce a child these days," he noted, "because people aren't having kids like they used to."

Besides, he sees budget problems in school districts throughout the state, including metro districts, suburban districts, bedroom-community districts, and rural districts. "Every school district is facing similar problems or concerns," he said, which hints at a statewide education funding problem.

Around half the school districts in the state held levy referendums last fall. "Probably the other half will ask this year," Caldwell predicted.

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