Schools expect student count to keep shrinking

The numbers are key, as enrollment determines funding from the state.

The Bainbridge Island School District is bracing for what could be the third straight year of declining enrollment at island public schools as it begins drafting a 2008-2009 budget.

The district was surprised last fall when 78 fewer students showed up for the first week of classes than had been projected, a shortfall that increased to 108 by January.

The abbreviated roll call didn’t just mean leaner classrooms, it meant state funding for the district, which is tied to enrollment, would be $350,000 less than budgeted for.

Projections for 2008-2009 predict an even slimmer student body, with somewhere between 3,807 and 3,817 expected students, compared to 3,861 current students.

As the six month budgeting process begins, administrators and school board members are keeping a wary eye on enrollment.

“For the current year we were conservative and we were caught off guard,” Superintendent Ken Crawford said last week. “We’re going to be pessimistic going into this next year. If the current trend turns around, we’ll celebrate. If if it doesn’t, we’ll be better prepared than we were over the last two years.”

The most tangible impact of the shortfall will be felt in staffing.

A draft budget estimated the enrollment drop will result in a loss equivalent to nine full time positions spread across the schools. Administrators say those positions can be absorbed in the annual staff turnover since roughly 25 to 30 staff members retire or take leaves of absence each year.

Where the cuts are made will depend on the positions being vacated and what grades have the highest enrollment.

“What we would typically do is shift teachers where the enrollment is,” district Director of Business Services Peggy Paige said.

Aside from the loss in state funding, the district plans to balance its budget this year after four years of deficit spending. That will mean finding $400,000 of cost cuts or increased contributions and revenue.

At last week’s school board meeting the expanded use of user fees was floated as one way of softening the budget blow.

The district charges fees for community use of its facilities to help pay for upkeep. For housing the recent political caucuses the district received $400 for each of the five buildings used.

Construction projects expected to be completed by the fall of 2008 will expand the district’s rentable assets. The new high school wing will include a large auditorium that could be used for gatherings and performances. Local sports clubs could also be charged for use of the resurfaced track and ball field at Memorial Stadium.

The board acknowledged that user fees aren’t usually well received and should be considered only as a way to recoup maintenance costs.

“I think we ought to be careful with user fees,” Board Member John Tawresey said. “It’s not going to solve a $400,000 problem.”

While the district looks for ways to squeeze into a tight budget this year, administrators are aware that stagnant enrollment could be a long-term trend.

A demographic analysis presented in December predicted a modest decline in enrollment over the next 10 years, with even its sunniest scenario calling for 13 fewer students in 2017.

This decline follows a decade of steady growth, with enrollment increasing each year from 1995 to 2005. Consultants pointed to several possible causes for the reversal.

Population growth has slowed since the 1990s and a look at the 2000 census showed a disproportionately high senior population compared to Kitsap County and the state, with a lower population of working age adults.

The number of women ages 18-44 is also down substantially from 1990, and the demographic makes up a significantly smaller percentage Bainbridge’s population than elsewhere in the state.

The lack of affordable homes for young families was named as another factor. The report noted that most affordable units being built are condominiums or apartments too small for raising kids.

But flagging public school enrollment also reflects the success of local private schools which the demographic report found to be “generally thriving.” Most private schools reported at stable enrollment while others, including St. Cecilia Catholic School, are expanding rapidly.

A total of 443 Bainbridge students are estimated to be enrolled in private schools, an especially popular alternative for young students. Only 65 percent of Bainbridge kindergartners are enrolled in public schools.

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