Local school districts feeling pinch of fewer students

Hockinson, others see state funding disappear as their enrollments decline

By Erin Middlewood, Columbian special projects reporter

Published:

 
photoStudents board a school bus at Hockinson Primary and Intermediate schools on Thursday. Declining enrollment led the district to shave the transportation budget.

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photoClick to enlarge

Clark County schools overflowed with students throughout the two decades straddling the turn of the millennium. Districts struggled to find space for the influx of children. Now a few local school districts have to deal with the flip side: declining enrollment.

Clark County's booming housing market fueled growth in local schools. The 2008 real estate crash slowed expansion of larger school districts. The smaller ones, especially those with less varied housing stock, actually saw their numbers drop.

Growth can be tough, but so can contraction. Enrollment sets funding levels from the state and dictates space and staffing needs. In boom years, the increase in students results in more state money for programs but squeezes facilities. In stagnant times, the squeeze is on the flow of money from the state.

When student enrollment drops, the need for teachers and classrooms also declines. The same is not necessarily true for overhead costs. District officials say they trim what they can to avoid cuts that affect the classroom experience.

While student counts in several school districts have sagged in recent years, Hockinson's numbers have plummeted.

"We do not have a lot of starter homes," Superintendent Sandra Yager said. "With the economy, it's harder for young families to move into the area."

The district used to serve kindergarten through eighth grade. It opened a high school in 2003. Enrollment in Hockinson grew a seam-popping 42 percent between the 2004-05 and 2005-06 school years. But since 2008, student numbers declined almost 9 percent.

The district used to have about 190 students in each grade, Yager said. The 2012-2013 kindergarten class has about 90 kids.

"It's emotionally harder to get smaller than it is to grow," Yager said. "You're concerned for the opportunities that you want kids to have."

Yager lays out a hypothetical scenario: If a district has 100 fewer kids, it loses about $500,000. The district then cuts four teachers, which reduces costs by $280,000, leaving another $220,000 to cut.

"Some of those support areas are harder to shrink," Yager said.

Falling enrollment is easier to handle when it's anticipated. Battle Ground grew rapidly in the early 2000s. Enrollment flattened after the housing crash.

A dip in 2011-12 can be attributed to changes in alternative programs, said MaryBeth Lynn, assistant superintendent of finance and school operations. The district's River HomeLink program, which supports home-schooled students, moved from a building in Camas to a smaller one in Battle Ground, and lost some families in the process. The district also discontinued its participation in Columbia Virtual Academy.

"We were able to forecast the declines and prepare," Lynn said.

From the last academic year to this one, the district grew 2 percent. Lynn said she expects a slight bump again next year, a conservative estimate given residential construction she sees occurring around the district.

"Once you have a teacher on staff, you can't scale back," Lynn said. "We would prefer to monitor and add as needed."

Woodland, where enrollment dipped in recent years, also is cautious with its forecasts.

The district had to make cuts after the housing crash, Superintendent Michael Green said.

"In 2008, we saw a drop right away," Green said.

Woodland schools reduced staff, delayed buying new textbooks and trimmed transportation. "Our goal was always to make cuts as far away from students as possible," Green said.

Enrollment seems to be returning to what was normal before the economic collapse, he said.

"We're seeing growth come right back," Green said. "But we don't want to over-project and then not have kids come in the door, because we budget based on those projections."

Hockinson, however, does not expect to grow again any time soon. This academic year, the district staggered school schedules so it could run fewer buses and cut the transportation budget, Yager said. Next fall, the primary and intermediate schools will combine to save administrative costs.

The district anticipates that enrollment will continue to fall over the next five years, Yager said. "My job is to look for efficiencies in the school district to minimize the impacts."

Erin Middlewood: 360-735-4516; http://www.twitter.com/emiddlewood;http://facebook.com/reportermiddlewood;erin.middlewood@columbian.com