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Feb. 3, 2023

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Student enrollment a roller coaster in Clark County

Evergreen, Vancouver districts thousands of students short of 2019 totals, while Ridgefield struggles to house growing number of kids

By , Columbian staff writer
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5 Photos
An empty classroom sits in the Sunset Ridge auxiliary gym on Tuesday in Ridgefield. Ridgefield School District schools are converting extracurricular spaces into classrooms to alleviate crowding.
An empty classroom sits in the Sunset Ridge auxiliary gym on Tuesday in Ridgefield. Ridgefield School District schools are converting extracurricular spaces into classrooms to alleviate crowding. (Taylor Balkom/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

Newly released annual school enrollment data shows that school districts in Clark County are still struggling to recoup from losses experienced since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Districts receive state funding based on student population, so if the number of students decreases, so does the annual budget. In recent years, districts have turned to federal and state emergency stabilization grants to compensate for inflation and to backfill the funding impact of losing thousands of students.

A series of pandemic-related federal funding programs, known as the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund, distributed aid to public school districts across the country to help cover unforeseen costs in cleaning supplies, staff retention, technology improvements and more.

The funding was allocated in three phases, the last of which is available to school districts through the 2024-2025 school year.

Despite the aid, shifts in enrollment have led districts to cut staff and routinely grapple with closures and shortages.

For the Evergreen and Vancouver districts, the goal isn’t to try to re-create what they had prior to 2020. Instead district officials hope to learn how to operate as slightly smaller districts and address learning loss and behavioral issues among younger students.

That trend is not being felt in north county, however, where school enrollments in areas like Ridgefield haven’t blinked, and have even grown since 2019.

By the numbers

The totals reported last week count each district’s average number of full time equivalent students as of the first business day of October. The state Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction publishes data for all public school districts online at washingtonstatereportcard.ospi.k12.wa.us/.

Evergreen Public Schools — the largest district in Southwest Washington and the sixth largest in the state — reported an enrollment of 22,877. The number shows a 0.64 percent decrease from the 2021-2022 school year’s total of 23,024 and 9.9 percent below the pre-pandemic total of 25,380 reported in 2019.

Vancouver Public Schools — the second largest district in the region and nearly a mirror image of its neighbor to the east, Evergreen — reported an enrollment of 21,749. That, too, is a slight decrease from its 2021-2022 total of 21,904 reported by OSPI and a 6.6 percent decline from 2019, when the district reported 23,298 students.

Battle Ground Public Schools is approaching its pre-pandemic size, with 12,239 students as of this month, compared with 11,900 in 2021-2022 — a 2.85 percent increase. Enrollment remains 4.5 percent below the 12,812 students reported in 2019.

The Camas School District reported 7,235 students this year, down 0.21 percent from the 7,250 students reported in 2021-2022 and 5.4 percent below the 7,647 students reported in 2019.

In Ridgefield, however, the situation is entirely different. Though the district’s growth this year appears to have stalled slightly — with 3,832 students this year compared with 3,846 last year — Ridgefield is one of few districts that’s seen substantial growth since 2019. Back then, the district had 3,497 students; five years ago, it had just 3,067. Since 2017, that amounts to a 24.94 percent increase in student population.

Flexibility amid challenges

In Ridgefield, the district’s financial arm faces an entirely different battle.

Though Ridgefield, too, received emergency funding, the combined $2.74 million is just a drop in the bucket compared with Evergreen. As Ridgefield continues to expand, district officials aren’t seeking more students, but more places to put them.

“Space is at a premium,” said Ridgefield Superintendent Nathan McCann. “We bought an inordinate number of portables for a district our size in the last few years. There’s just no room left at the inn in terms of places to put portables.”

Five consecutive bond failures have kept Ridgefield from building new elementary and middle schools. As a result, the district has been forced to create temporary classrooms in places like the Sunset Ridge wrestling room, while also identifying other locations — including the theater stage and other multipurpose rooms — to undergo similar transformations in the near future.

While some parents in Ridgefield were frustrated with some of the converted spaces and requested hearings with the superintendent to discuss potential changes, McCann said, those steps helped move the district forward this year.

“As with a lot of things, as parents sit down and start to see the challenges of space, they understand that sharing becomes a necessity,” he said. “Spaces are going to sometimes have multiple uses at least for an interim period until a more long-term solution can be determined, and in our case that’s a school bond.”

Eyeing stability

Evergreen Public Schools has been allocated $63.82 million over the three rounds of emergency funds; as of Aug. 31, the district has claimed $37.9 million. It has the next two school years to claim the rest. So far, Evergreen has used $17.7 million to pay and retain certificated and staff members, including as teachers and counselors.

The district has also used significant portions of these funds to invest in educational technology, cleaning services and after-school and summer programs that help address learning loss.

Last school year, Evergreen used $14 million in one-time state stabilization funding in addition to emergency funds to directly address anticipated losses in revenue as a result of enrollment losses.

“The majority of (emergency) funds spent in 21/22 have been invested in retaining staff in an effort to sustain low class sizes, keep supports in place and address the ongoing demands and impact of (COVID-19),” the district said in a statement.

Even with a variety of funding initiatives, the losses have forced Evergreen and other districts to cut dozens of positions and programs. Last summer, Evergreen cut 110 classroom teachers, 46 classroom paraeducators and 14 central office positions as it sought to shed millions of dollars from its budget.

“For the 22/23 school year, budget cuts of $20 million were made to offset the forecasted decline of revenue (due to decreased enrollment and loss of stabilization funding) and overall increase in expenditures due to inflation,” the district said in a statement.

Evergreen anticipates using another $20 million in emergency funds this school year; as it stands now it has about $25.9 million left unclaimed.

Once the funding runs dry, however, the district warns further reductions will likely have to be made if enrollment continues to stall.

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