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Enrollment remains a difficult balancing act for school district

In two months, South Whidbey High School will unleash

203 seniors into the real world.

For the students and their parents, it will be a time of joy, the culmination of

12 years of hard work, challenges and good times.

The thing is, four years ago the senior graduating class was 240 students strong. As the years passed, kids dropped out for a variety of reasons, and lately that process has accelerated.

In January, the district lost an unprecedented 16 students: six from grades six to eight and 10 from grades kindergarten through fifth.

Administrators said they were surprised by the number, but shouldn’t have been. The trend over the last 10 years indicates a 29 percent decrease in South Whidbey classrooms.

The latest estimates for next September indicate a whopping 139 fewer students entering the district’s classrooms and there will be at least a $1.9 shortfall from the district’s $17 million budget. The elementary school will have 67 fewer kids and the high school, 78. Only the middle school will have a small increase of six students.

“The trend has been fewer kids entering at the kindergarten level,” said business manager Dan Poolman. “And the freshman class at the high school usually averaged about 220 students, but next fall we are projecting only 149.”

South Whidbey School Superintendent Fred McCarthy pointed out that, while all school districts are scaling their budgets back 5 or 6 percent, South Whidbey is facing an 11 percent decline.

The state gives the district about $5,300 per student, so the drop from that source alone equals $770,000 in just one year for South Whidbey.

The state provides 71.2 percent of school funding. Local tax dollars comprise 22.8 percent while the federal government adds 5.7 percent.

Fewer kids, however, equals less money. That means fewer teachers and support staff because salaries and benefits represent 83 percent of school expenses.

For the school district, it will mean a delicate balance act.

“We will have to reduce staffing consistent with enrollment but in such a way as to minimize the impact on students and programs,” McCarthy said. “We must maintain the high level of quality instruction that parents expect.”

The first layoff notices will be sent out on April 15 and the final ones go out one month later, after a review by the school board on May 13. Officials said there are only a few retirements expected this year, so attrition from departing employees won’t cover the problem.

McCarthy said the district can’t rely on federal stimulus funds because their use is predetermined by the government. South Whidbey will receive $58,000 in additional monies that can only be used for facility upgrades, plus $246,000 annually for special education funds.

The district is examining every aspect of the budget in order to make whatever cuts are possible.

Over the past several years, the district has explored closing Langley Middle School, selling or leasing the 23-acre property. The two-story 95,000 square foot structure is the oldest in the district’s inventory, built in 1935.

But there has been opposition from people who want to keep the kids close to town and others who point out that replacing the classrooms might cost more than upgrading the school. And some citizens are worried about having older and younger children in close proximity.

By April 17, the district hopes to post on its Web site comments they received from staff members on ways to save money, and jobs. And on April 25 in the high school commons, the school district is having a public forum to gauge the community’s temperature on the problem and solicit any further ideas.

Jeff VanDerford can be reached at 221-5300 or jvanderford@southwhidbeyrecord.com.

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