School enrollment continues to decline

This article submitted by Linda Stelling and Michael Jacobson on 9/13/00.

Declining enrollment, and its financial impact on the school district, has been a topic for years. With school starting on Tuesday, Sept. 5, the latest numbers are in, and they indicate a continuation of the decline.

Enrollment at Paynesville Area Elementary School is 474 students in grades K-6 this year. This is a decrease of 40 from last year, and this is the first time in at least ten years that enrollment at the school is below 500.

The middle school (grades 6-8), which has maintained the steadiest enrollment over the past decade, also has diminished numbers to start the year. Their enrollment is 304, down 17 from a year ago. This is also the lowest in at least a decade, but is close to the average over the 1990s (339 students per year).

Right now, the high school (grades 9-12) is faring the best, with 435 students. Three of the four classes in the high school have over 100 students. The only other class in the entire district with over a 100 students enrolled on the first day was the seventh grade.

Still, the high school enrollment is the lowest since 1993 and with smaller classes coming up through the district, declining enrollment could have a larger impact in a few years.

School enrollment chart

The decline
The table below tracks the opening day enrollment in each grade (K-12) for this year, the last ten years (1990-1999), and from 1970 and 1980. From it, some patterns emerge.

The first is that enrollment is cyclical. While, for most of these years, the total enrollment has been between 1,300 and 1,400 for all grades, the placement of those students has varied.

For instance, the enrollment in 1970 was two more than in 1980. But, in 1970, the largest classes were in the middle school, while in 1980, the largest classes were in the high school, and some of the beginning classes in the elementary school were small.

By 1990, those small classes were in the high school. Low numbers in the high school had already caused some budget problems in the late 1980s.

In 1990, a number of large classes started in the elementary school. The 676 students enrolled in grades K-6 in 1990 was the highest in the last decade.

What has happened since then is the enrollment in the elementary school has gradually declined, while high school enrollment has gone up. The current junior class, who were second graders in 1990, have been the largest class in the district for their entire school lives.

That class now boosts the high school enrollment, but since they left the fifth grade the enrollment at the elementary school has gone down dramatically. From 1990 to 1994, elementary enrollments averaged 656 students. In the past five years, that average has sunk by 100 students to 551. This year's enrollment is almost 80 students below that.

For the last decade, elementary school enrollment has averaged 603 students. This year's enrollment is 130 below that, which works out to about 20 students fewer per grade. That means instead of small classes of 90 and large classes of 110, the elementary school now has small classes of 70 and large classes of 90.

The two smallest kindergarten classes in the past decade were 73 in 1998 and 72 in 1999. These classes are in first and second grade now, and have gotten smaller, 63 and 71 respectively. The third grade, which had only 75 students enrolled the first day, is barely bigger.

The middle school has been the steadiest in enrollment, averaging 339 students over the last decade, with a low of 304 and a high of 360. From 1991 to 1999, out of 27 classes only three had fewer than 100 students. But in the past three years, there have been four classes with less than 100 students, including two this year.

The high school, which had low numbers in the early 1990s, has had larger enrollments over the past five years, as the large classes of kids who started school in the late 1980s and early 1990s have progressed. In the last five years, the high school has averaged 459 students and has had only one class of less than 100. This year their enrollment is down to 435.

The reasons
Though the Paynesville community keeps growing, it has not resulted in additional school children, leaving administrators unsure why enrollment is changing, according to superintendent Howard Caldwell.

Elementary principal Todd Burlingame said it's scary to see the enrollment declining. "We can't pinpoint the reasons," he said.

Obviously, there are less kids of school age, but there are no certain explanations. Factors may include smaller families, more people waiting to have families, and the aging of the population.

One theory is that the growth of the area is heavily commuters (to St.Cloud, Willmar, and even the Twin Cities) and retirees. Retirees are unlikely to have school-aged children, and commuters may be more likely to have smaller families.

Larger families are not as common as they once were either. This may be due to the farm economy and the decline in family farms.

Burlingame feels the housing market is a contributing factor. Few affordable homes are available in the district, which may be a deterrent for young families who want to move here.

"I think the enrollment will bounce back. People are holding back students who aren't ready for school," Burlingame said. On the district's census list, there were 93 students eligible for kindergarten this year, but only 84 started the new school year.

One positive trend over the years has been that classes have generally grown as they got older. Deb Gillman, the middle school principal, attributes part of that to the district losing very few students to open enrollment.

Society has become more mobile, though, and the schools do lose students when their families move.

This year was unfortunate in that regard, as the returning five classes in the elementary school lost 25 students and the four classes in the high school this year lost 21 students from a year ago.

Caldwell stressed that declining enrollment is a state-wide trend, and not restricted to the local school.

Burlingame said in his former district (Virginia) lost 250 students in enrollment over a two-year period. Paynesville lost 75 this year, 100 in the past two years, and 200 since 1994.

The result
"Any time you lose enrollment you lose revenue," Caldwell said. "I have been encouraging the board to look at the figures for several years."

State funding for schools is based on enrollment. High school students are worth the most, middle school students slightly less, and elementary children the least of all when it comes to state funding.

This will be the sixth year that the school's enrollment has declined, and it will be the fourth year that the district has depended on deficit spending.

Administration and school board members have said that the school can't keep deficit spending indefinitely. Without revenue increases of some kind, cuts may occur. Caldwell said he will again be asking the board to look at the programs and what the district can and cannot afford to provide.

For the past couple of years, the district has tried to minimize costs without cuts. For example, in the elementary school, the school district has not replaced retiring teachers for two straight years. With declining enrollment, they have shuffled staff to cover instead.

The hope is that enrollment will rebound, but the problem could get worse before it gets better. So far, the main decrease of students has been in the elementary school, where the financial effect is the smallest. If smaller classes persist in moving to the middle and high school, they will result in more severe losses in state funding, due to the state's reimbursement formula.

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