Enrollment crunch worsens as new numbers are revealed

The school enrollment numbers for October are in and they just keep getting worse.

South Whidbey School District officials, who have been warning for almost a year that the decreasing number of students in area schools would have a dire effect on the budget, were proven right.

“With each passing week as the year went on, enrollment projections, the state’s revenue problems and the general economy dictated that the board do something,” said District Superintendent Fred McCarthy. “We are restructuring the district as a way of dealing with a $1.85 million shortfall (out of a total $17 million annual budget), but newer, creative solutions must be explored.

“The situation is not temporary, nor is it static,” he said.

As of the first of this month, the district has 1,604 students enrolled in five building sites, said district business manager Dan Poolman.

“We conservatively budgeted for 1,619, so the shortfall is real,” Poolman said.

Making things worse is that, normally, October has the highest number of the year — historically, it goes down from there, especially at the high school when the Running Start program siphons off students.

Funding implications are serious. Each student represents about $5,300 in money from the state.

Last month, enrollment-generated loss of revenue prompted administrators to recommend the drastic and quick response of shutting down an elementary school classroom and laying off one teacher.

The angry response from parents — and affected students — was just as drastic and quick, so McCarthy was forced to dip into the district fund balance reserves to meet the expected $168,000 drop in revenue.

“We we were able to maintain staffing and program stability at the cost of reducing the district’s fund balance,” McCarthy noted. “That works as a short-term solution, but challenges us to create a sustainable long-term plan for accelerated enrollment decline.

“Because that’s what we’re looking at,” he said.

In response to the outcry from parents and others, the district will create and administer a survey during the next few weeks to gather input from a variety of different community groups to be used in planning for program, staff and administrative support as the district further downsizes.

“We are enlisting the services of a local consultant with expertise in survey design and administration to collect this valuable data,” McCarthy explained.

A random sample survey will be conducted by phone, and folks will be asked what programs are important to keep alive, what processes should the district use to determine teacher staffing, what reductions in administrative staff should occur in the district and what services should be maintained and at what level.

“The survey is a direct response to parents to adopt a more proactive stand on this issue,” McCarthy said. “We hope to hear many ideas from board members, parents, the PTA, community members, students, teachers, support staff and administration, and to incorporate the best ideas into a well-designed plan to deal with decreasing revenue.”

Results of the survey are expected by the Nov. 25 school board meeting.

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