As enrollment drops, so does school funding

Like Sisyphus laboring to push a rock up hill, South Whidbey schools has a seemingly endless struggle of its own.

The district’s battle is against declining enrollment, a factor that not only means fewer kids in classrooms, but less money from the state for basic education costs.

During last Monday’s South Whidbey Board of Education meeting, September’s enrollment of 2,034 students was reported to be just four students above what the district had budgeted for the current school year.

With what district officials characterize as a low student population in September and the expectation that will drop, the district may soon see funding cuts from the state. According to the district’s historical data, the trend is for 25 to 30 students to withdraw from district schools before the end of the school year.

“We don’t know where that will bottom out,” said district Superintendent Bob Brown during the meeting. “We could go as low as 2,010, or less.”

Financial problems arise when enrollment falls during the school year because certain salaries and other expenditures are based on the 2,030 enrollment figure.

The state gives the district about $4,300 per student to fund basic education.

Because district officials don’t know how many students the district will lose by spring, administrators are trimming the budget by $115,000 to $150,000 now instead of waiting until next year.

By adjusting expenditures now, Brown said the district will hit its fund balance target of $429,000 in August 2005.

“We want to maintain that fund balance,” he said.

Brown said he will work with building administrators to reduce spending.

Ben Thomas, the district’s business manager told the board “We will be going through the budget line by line” to begin reducing spending.

Although it will require some belt tightening, Thomas said it is much better to make this discovery this fall rather than next February or March.

“We still have time to address it,” he said.

School board director Jim Adsley, the board’s auditor, said a the meeting that September is typically the worst month for cash flow, which makes it difficult to maintain a budget if there are cost overruns.

“Hopefully we can find expenditures that can be deferred,” Adsley said.

Since 1999, when district enrollment topped out at 2,081, the number of students in the district has been spiraling downward.

Brown cited the cost of living on South Whidbey and the lack of jobs for working families as the cause. He blamed the declining enrollment on several factors including high costs of property on South Whidbey, difficulty in commuting by ferry and the lack of employment on the island.

“Nichols (Brothers Boat Builders) is one of few employers on the Southend,” he said.

Other factors affecting enrollment include the Running Start Program. At South Whidbey High School, there are 65 students in Running Start — which is operated through Skagit Valley College and other community colleges. The district receives only the portion of funds it normally would when Running Start students enroll in classes at the college.

Students transferring to other districts can also affect the bottom line. But so far this year, the district has gained seven more transfer students than it has lost. This fall, 47 have transferred to other, nearby school districts such as Coupeville and Mukilteo, while 54 have transferred into district schools.

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