"Extra students please school officialsFirst-week enrollment surprised officials, and offered a budget windfall."
June 9, 2008 · Updated 4:01 PM
"Sixty more students than school officials expected showed up for class this week. While district projections suggested that Bainbridge public school enrollment would decline by 28 students this year, to 3,782 full-time equivalent students, first-week totals turned out to be 3,847.The news leaves district officials pleased - if puzzled.We certainly didn't expect it, Deputy Superintendent Ken Crawford said. Even if our usual attrition rate of 20 students per year holds, the district will still have 44 students and $175,000 (in state funding) more than we thought. The district completed student counts Monday, with the high school and 4th grade classes at Wilkes and Ordway picking up the extras. District officials have reason to smile; this year's enrollment picture is the reverse of the situation the district faced this time last year, when enrollment was 55 short. The district receives some $4,000 in state funding for every FTE student, and last year's decline led to budget problems throughout the year.For 2001-2002, the district took into account the downward trend in enrollment and crafted a conservative budget based on an expected loss of students. I think we clearly and purposefully took a very conservative projection to base our budget on, school board member Bruce Weiland said. Then, if it turned out that we had more students than we budgeted for, we would have the money to add things back in.Some of the $175,000 in state funds expected to be left after attrition will go to increase paraeducator support in Wilkes and Ordway classrooms that now have as many as 28 students. Some may also be used to build up the district's unreserved fund, to replace custodial help and to restore building budgets. Crawford said the board will decide how to spend the windfall in October. Enrollment is tracked month by month, shifting over the course of any given school year, while district officials try to analyze the changes, he said.The trend has been a roller coaster for the last few years, Crawford said. We are only this year realizing the level of growth predicted for last year.Enrollment is increasingly volatile. We are not sure why.Roller coasterFrom 1993 through 1998, Bainbridge fall enrollment grew more than 3 percent annually. Then, in 1999-2000, growth flattened.Two years ago, we predicted enrollment at trend and staffed at that level, Crawford said. It turned out we were overstaffed.Money that the state gives schools in the fall based on district projections, must be returned if those enrollment numbers fall short. Overstaffed and suddenly underbudgeted, the district saved by cutting classified positions and scrimping on building supplies. The district continued to project student growth at the expansive rates of the mid-nineties for 2000-2001 while enrollment took another dive, growing at less than 1 percent. When enrollment growth dropped to just one-half of 1 percent, the loss to the Bainbridge district of $308,000, combined with unexpected costs, hit hard. The unreserved fund that is the district's rainy day savings dipped to under 1 percent.Administrators speculated that changing island demographics and private school options were affecting the numbers, while some parents speculated that alienated special education families and parents whose children had been bullied were contributing factors.Some shifts happen historically, Crawford said, with identifiable points at which the district can expect to gain enrollment. High school is one such point, as the private school students come back to the public schools. This year, the new all-day kindergarten program brought more beginning students, but no one predicted a bump in fourth grade.For this year, the district will place paraeductors in some fourth grade classrooms. If classrooms were to continue to expand, Crawford said, alternative approaches might be necessary.Many school districts wait until the beginning of the school year to add teachers and shift students around, Crawford said, unlike the Bainbridge district, where students stay in their first placement.That's not the culture of this district, Crawford said. Parents here want smaller class sizes, but they would not welcome the disruption of moving students once the year starts. But we may have to consider that option in future.Board members and administrators say that they prefer grappling with where to put more students to last year's dilemma. We are extremely pleased, Crawford said, to be in a much better situation. "