Enrollment continues to fall at Jefferson County school districts
by Dennis Sharkey
There were no pleasant surprises this year when area school districts tallied their official head counts.
The only superintendent somewhat optimistic about his district’s results was JCN Superintendent Dr. Tim Marshall. His district was only five students down from last year when factoring the funding formula.
“I’m not real upset about it,” Marshall said. “Our projections were actually lower than that.”
JCN’s head count number used for budgeting is 477.5. The district optimistically budgeted for a number of 470 but was bracing for 465.
Planning for a decrease seems to be the status quo among Jefferson County school districts when it comes to planning the budget. Superintendents are watching senior classes exit at a clip on average of 15 more students than what kindergarten classes are bringing in.
“When you have kindergarten classes of 26 or 27 and you’re graduating 38 or 39, that’s what we’re running into,” said Valley Falls USD 338 Superintendent Loren Feldkamp.
Valley Falls has somewhat bucked the trend the last two school years with an increase of about two or three students each year. However, USD 338 has seen a drop of 17 students from last year’s count for a total of 402.
Last year Perry-Lecompton USD 343 also saw a slight increase but has returned to a 10-year trend of slight declines. Superintendent Dr. Denis Yoder expects the trend to continue unless a large housing development pops up in the district. His district is down to 969 students from 980 last year. Yoder said last year’s senior class graduated 89 students. This year’s kindergarten class in only 49.
Last year Oskaloosa USD 341 had an increase of about 19 students but has taken a dramatic swing down by about 25 students this year from last year.
McLouth USD 342 is treading water but is seeing an increase in students needing free or reduced lunches. The number of students jumped from 60 to 72 while revenues shrunk by about $83,000.
For Jefferson West USD 340 Superintendent Scott Myers the trend has shifted in the last three years. His head count is at 880 but a drop of 20-25 students was expected. However, Meyers said when he arrived five years ago the state education department did a study that showed growth for the district over the next several years.
“There weren’t very many houses for sale when I moved here five years ago but there are more now than there were,” Myers said. “Three years isn’t long enough to give a scientific reason but the economy has done what it’s done in those three years.”
Why are enrollment numbers important?
Most of a district’s funding is tied directly to a district’s enrollment. The more students, the more funding a district receives. However, trying to plan a budget with enrollment numbers has also been difficult for administrators thanks to three funding cuts during the school year last year.
A lot of discussion has circulated around Topeka the last couple of years about how education should be funded throughout the state. As more people move away from rural areas to urban areas, so does the shift of power.
“For a young person to stay around the rural area and find a job is very difficult,” Feldkamp said. “The kids are all going off to Kansas City, Wichita or larger areas.
“If you have some industry in your town, you’re very fortunate,” Feldkamp added.
Feldkamp said there is visual evidence of urban areas growing. He pointed to the Blue Valley district in Johnson County that will be adding a high school next year and an urban district near Wichita that is splitting its class 5A school into two class 5A schools.
“It kind of tells you that some of those large schools are very large and even when they split they’re still large,” he said.
Many urban area leaders are calling for more local option budget funding for schools and less from the state.
“Those plans as I see them are going to shift the tax burden back to local property,” Marshall said. “That for JCN is a killer. Relative to the rest of the state, we’re not a real wealthy district.
“If they rewrite this state school finance formula and take some of that equalization out and put it back on the local taxpayers it will be the end of us,” Marshall added. “I feel very strongly about that.”
Marshall said if urban area leaders have their way it could mean up to a 25 percent loss of revenue for JCN and a tax hike in the range of about 25 mills. However, Marshall believes the funding for rural schools will be saved.
“There’s a lot of talk but in the end the best for most districts seems to prevail,” he said.
USD 341 Superintendent Jon Pfau said he would like to see more flexibility within the budget. Currently state laws prohibit what a certain fund’s monies can be spent on. He gave an example of having a surplus in a capital improvement fund but a need in the general fund. He said he would like flexibility to borrow from or move funds around.
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