School enrollment cools

After a decade of growth, most Clark County districts add few new students

By Ray Legendre, Columbian staff writer

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For much of the 2000s, Clark County’s school districts ballooned in size as the county’s population mushroomed. But with population growth stagnant amid double-digit percent unemployment, county schools’ growth has noticeably cooled.

Countywide schools enrollment rose a fraction of a percent from September 2010 to September 2011, according to numbers provided by Educational Service District 112 officials. While this meager increase came on the heels of Clark County schools enrollment jumping more than 14 percent from 2000-2010, it could hardly be categorized as a sudden development, officials said.

“We had pretty good population growth in the ’90s and much of the 2000s, but once the recession hit people stopped moving here,” said Scott Bailey, a regional economist with the state Employment Security Department.

For school officials, enrollment numbers can be as important as test scores. Not only do they dictate physical space and staffing but they also determine how much money each district receives from the state.

In boom years, more students equal more state money for programs but also force districts to spend more on facilities. In stagnant times, there are fewer dollars for programs.

“Stagnation means stability assuming all things are equal,” said Brett Blechschmidt, an assistant fiscal officer with ESD 112. He noted things are not equal this year. The teaching staffing rate has dropped, meaning schools are having to often educate the same number of students with fewer teachers.

Clark County schools rocketed from 62,168.74 students to 72,684.51 students between the start of the millennium and 2010, according to ESD 112. By comparison, the five other counties in ESD 112 all posted modest declines over the same 10-year period.

However, Clark County’s steep enrollment incline appears to have flat-lined.

The county picked up 82 students between this September and last, ESD 112 officials said. The numbers include kindergarten students but do not include approximately 1,800 Running Start students. High school students who participate in Running Start, a program where they earn college credits, are not counted as a full-time equivalent because they take part of their schedule off-campus, mostly at Clark College.

FTEs are significant because they dictate how much money a district receives. A student enrolled full-time brings the district around $5,000. Kindergarten students generally bring in half that amount.

Most districts within Clark County saw minimal enrollment change — either a percent up or down.

Battle Ground and Camas school districts were the outliers.

Camas increased 259 students from last school year, according to ESD 112. The boost forced neighboring Washougal to house more students than expected.

Meanwhile, Battle Ground lost 398 students. The change resulted from shrinking enrollment in the River HomeLink program and families moving away to seek better employment opportunities, officials said.

Growth in Camas

For years, Camas has accepted boundary exceptions for students from Washougal whose parents wanted them in Camas schools. That stopped this year, though, due to a 259-student influx in Camas.

Camas’ enrollment soared to the point that school officials had to reject 32 boundary exceptions for district residents who wanted their children to attend elementary schools outside their neighborhood, Superintendent Mike Nerland said.

The space in schools had to go to new district residents, whom Nerland noted came from either other areas of Washington or out of state. The enrollment spike surprised him, he admitted.

Enrollment increases like the one Camas underwent this fall have perks. For each student, the state of Washington kicks in around $5,000 to the school district, depending on several factors including the experience level of its teachers. That means the Camas district will receive around $1.295 million extra for educating, feeding and transporting students, among other things.

“More students means more staff,” Nerland added. He expects increases in student population “for the foreseeable future.”

‘Unprecedented’

Meanwhile the student population increases in Camas led to an “unprecedented increase in enrollment” in Washougal this fall, Superintendent Dawn Tarzian said.

Not only did the district receive students whose boundary exceptions were denied, but it also enrolled students who previously attended the River HomeLink program, which moved this summer from Camas to Battle Ground.

As a result, Washougal ended up with 124 more students than it budgeted for this fall, Tarzian said.

“What would typically be a source of joy for us, and it still is, at the same time is coming at a time where resources are very thin,” she said.

For instance, Cape Horn-Skye Elementary School began the school year with 34 and 35 students in its two fifth-grade classes. Twenty-eight students would normally be an acceptable number, Tarzian said.

Higher class sizes not only hurt students, with respect to the attention they receive, but also put strain on teachers, who have to grade extra papers, schedule extra parent-teacher conferences and supervise a larger group.

Like other Clark County districts, Washougal offers teachers an option where they can ask for a teacher’s aide or extra pay once the number of students exceeds the number agreed upon in the teacher’s contract.

At Tarzian’s request, the district has since hired a third fifth-grade teacher at the school. Students must be protected from the volatile environment caused by enrollment swings, she said.

Washougal is not the only district in the county struggling with growth.

For a school district like Ridgefield, an enrollment slowdown would be welcomed like rain in the midst of a drought. While the district’s 3.4 percent growth this year is not reason to panic, overcrowding remains a major issue at many schools.

Ridgefield High and Union Ridge Elementary gained 56 and 37 students, respectively. The additions don’t seem staggering, but they have caused additional stress on a district with finite resources, Superintendent Art Edgerly said.

Union Ridge, which teaches children in grades K-6, has hired a teacher and added a fourth lunch period since the school year started. Additions like those are temporary solutions, Edgerly said. Eventually, Ridgefield will need to pass a bond to pay for building and infrastructure enhancements across the district.

“We’ve made adjustments before to accommodate the growth,” he said. “Now we’re at the point where there are not many options.”

Growth ends in Evergreen

The Evergreen school district’s 20 percent growth in the 2000s made it the county’s largest district. Those days are in the rearview window.

“We’re not growing,” Evergreen Chief Operating Officer Mike Merlino said.

Evergreen added 39 students this year, moving from 25,162 in September 2010 to 25,200.7 at the same time this year, ESD 112 numbers showed. The upward push would not have been possible if not for an uptick in kindergarten students. The district’s full-day kindergarten classes were a selling point, Merlino said.

Otherwise the state’s fifth-largest school district is at a standstill in terms of enrollment.

“The economy being as negative as it has been the past few years shut down some of the expansion that would have happened,” Merlino said. The district would like to reduce the number of students it has learning in portable buildings but now is not a good time to try to pass a bond, Merlino explained.

The county’s second-largest district, Vancouver, gained 96 students, an increase of less than 1 percent. Vancouver’s head count rose from 21,341.4 to 21,437.5.

The district has been “pretty flat for many years now,” spokeswoman Pat Mattison said with respect to enrollment changes. Mattison was unsure whether this meant people had stopped moving into the area or were moving out of the area due to the economy.

By contrast, the reasons for the Battle Ground school district’s enrollment losses are clear, spokesman Gregg Herrington noted.

Some families have moved out of state to seek better job opportunities while others, who have lost their homes, have moved to the Vancouver and Evergreen districts due to a lack of apartments in the Battle Ground area, Herrington said.

The idea that Clark County’s enrollment numbers are largely affected by families moving out of state for jobs is unlikely, Bailey noted, because there are no “greener pastures” to be found.

“It’s not like we’re in the dumpster and everybody else is doing fine,” he said.

Where the slump can be helpful

For some of Clark County’s smaller districts news that enrollment numbers are staying in place is not a bad thing.

The La Center School District has the same number of students it did at this time last school year, officials said. There is reason to believe the numbers might increase in the near future, though.

The district has recently collected impact fees on new housing developments, said ESD 112’s Blechschmidt, though he cautioned those aren’t always a great predictor of enrollment increases. Blechschmidt also serves as the La Center district’s fiscal officer on a contract basis.

If any large-scale increases arose, the district would have to find ways to create more space for students.

“From an administrative standpoint we would be stuck with overcrowding and not a real great remedy to it,” Blechschmidt said.

Districts such as Hockinson, Green Mountain and Woodland, which is grouped with Cowlitz County, have all seen either minimal gains or losses.

In Hockinson, high property prices in the district have resulted in many unoccupied houses, Superintendent Sandra Yager said.

The economy also caused decreases in Woodland’s enrollment. The city is rebuilding, in terms of population, but Superintendent Michael Green added his district would not see “rapid growth until the housing market turns around and the economy picks up.”

It might be a long time before either the housing market or economy accelerate.

Clark County school districts should continue experiencing small enrollment growths for the next four to five years, Bailey said.

The reason, he noted, is the county has more children between the ages of birth to 4 years old than teens between the ages of 15 to 19.

However, there is no enrollment boom on the horizon.

“To do that the economy would really have to pick up,” Bailey said. “There would have to be enough new jobs to draw people in a significant way.”

Could it happen? “Considering the condition of the national and global economies, nobody is real optimistic about this,” Bailey added.

Ray Legendre: 360-735-4517; www.facebook.com/raylegend; www.twitter.com/col_smallcities; ray.legendre@columbian.com.