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Enrollments a mixed bag in county

The Oskaloosa Independent of Oskaloosa, Kansas

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A budget year that forced major cuts in county school districts and a recent count day to set the districts' enrollments left some county superintendents thankful for unexpected gains, and others in not as favorable straits, as another year of almost assured necessary budget cuts looms.

One thing the superintendents could all feel the same way about was that it's been a good start to the 2009-10 school year countywide.

The biggest jumps in enrollment came from the Oskaloosa and Perry-Lecompton districts, where expected double-digit drops were instead double-digit gains in students. Valley Falls and Jefferson County North held the line on their enrollment numbers in comparison to last school year while Jefferson West and McLouth suffered large drops of more than 20 students.

Jon Pfau, superintendent of Oskaloosa USD 341, said a gain of 17 students in K-12 in the district was pleasant news as he had expected a loss of 22 children based on the data he had at hand.

"The good news is we're up," Pfau said. "We got a little at the high school level and bigger gains in the junior high and elementary levels. It's just a couple kids here and there that added up."

The head count in the district jumped to 539 from 522 in K-12, but in an odd twist, the high school recently dropped to 2A for sports starting in volleyball this year and continuing the next two school years. The 10th-12th grade included 120 students in the count with the lower threshold of 3A classification with the state being 121 students. OHS was the only county school to change classifications this year and the move gives the county two 2A schools, two 3A schools and two 4A schools. JCN's enrollment dropped it to 2-1A in football for the next two seasons, but 3A in other aspects.

"We have an average class size of 42 and our sophomore class in the high school only has 29 kids, so that's one main reason we dropped a class," Pfau said.

Pfau said the jump in overall enrollment would likely translate to an equal jump in the full-time equivalency numbers that determine the school's funding from the state. Those numbers are determined by a formula that gives added weight to certain types of students.

Any bit of budget help is needed in school districts across the state. Pfau said USD 341 had to cut $225,000 from this year's budget to make it work.

"We tried to cut more 'things' than people," Pfau said of the district's approach to the cuts. The high school bowling and cross-country teams were among the cuts to save money. "We did that to the best of our ability, but we did have to drop a couple positions. Every department had a cutback, and we took it from there. We had some programs with multiple coaches that got cut back. The school board was very involved, and we started in November and set our priorities and went from there. I was impressed with how much the board wanted to get involved. We were very methodical. The staff also gave us some good input."

Denis Yoder, superintendent of Perry-Lecompton USD 343, also got some good news on count day as the district had a jump of 17 in head count to 969 from 952. He said the school's FTE numbers would be up even more than that, which would help the district's funding cause. Yoder said the district was expecting a drop of 15-20 students. Like Pfau, he was at a loss to determine the driving force behind the gains.

"It was completely unexpected," Yoder said. "We asked each building in the district to give us projections on which kids may not be coming back. It just looked like we'd be down again. But our high school was up, the elementa-ries were up and the middle school was down."

The good news came in the wake of the district having to make in the neighborhood of $400,000 in budget cuts as the biggest district in the county.

"We cut back 30 percent in each building's budget," Yoder said. "We also eliminated some transportation within the district and also eliminated one administrator at the elementary level for this year, plus four teachers. We had our first tier and second tier cuts. We're looking at other possible cuts in addition to those."

Yoder said the increase in enrollment was a nice stroke of fortune for the district.

"It's a good swing," Yoder said. "The dilemma is always trying to anticipate what the future holds. We'd had declines for eight years in a row. An increase certainly beats the alternative."

Valley Falls superintendent Loren Feldkamp was expecting a drop in head count at USD 338 but instead kept the count of 428 the district had last school year.

"We were projecting to be down nine to 10 kids," Feldkamp said. "We got quite a few move-ins at the grade school and middle school levels to help us, though."

He said the district has 26 new students that should help the school's FTE number actually rfse somewhat. The district had to make nearly $140,000 in cuts for this school year to get by.

"We combined some positions and cut a couple too. I met with the school board and we started looking at three different tiers of cuts and put an exact dollar amount to them," Feldkamp said. "Tier one included things we could do without much impact, tier two included some things we did to increase our energy efficiency, and tier three included things we needed to look at cutting but weren't ready to at this point. We're still working on those at this point."

With more cuts possibly being necessary because of state financial needs, Feldkamp said the next round of cuts would be much harder to make.

"We took into our biggest consideration the cuts that wouldn't hurt the education of our students. What can we do to cut but not hurt that educational quality?' It'll be very difficult to make more cuts.

"I think we saw some people move in the community for a lot of different reasons, whether it was because they have relatives in the area or that housing is just cheaper. We were facing a bigger loss in FTE but were able to sustain the numbers."

Jefferson County North USD 339 was another district that actually saw a slight increase in enrollment but not much change overall in FTE. The JCN head count rose to 500 from 497 but the FTE is expected by superintendent Dr. Tim Marshall to rise only slightly. The district was prepared for a slight drop in enrollment.

"The wild card for us this year was that instead of losing ground, we stayed put," Marshall said. "We got some kids in from out of district, but not a lot of move-ins. Honestly, the housing I see going in in the district is for folks that are about my age who have kids that are grown. The school population doesn't seem to be growing as fast. It's a good way to live up here, but I think most of the people that can afford that aren't in the middle of raising kids."

Marshall will take a hold in the line on enrollment after the district had to cut upwards of $200,000 from the budget for this school year.

"We did quite a bit of planning, then sent our ideas to the teachers for feedback," Marshall said. "We had to cut down the staff by a couple people. We have columns B and C left and my best hope was we wouldn't have to get into the harder cuts. I feel like we're already to the point where it's starting to hurt the kids, and we can't keep cutting things without hurting them."

Marshall said he has been closely tracking activity at the state level and he expects perhaps another round of cuts to be necessary late this year or early next.

"With all the tax breaks the state has pushed through in recent years, you wonder why some of those can't be reclaimed," Marshall said. "We're in the mode of trying to hang on to the integrity of our programs and not let all this financial crisis drive the decisions. Some days we do better than others. One thing that's really struck me is to see teachers doing things on their own part like spending their own money on supplies and things. You can't just go out and buy that kind of loyalty. We've got a really good bunch of people here."

The enrollment changes had their harshest impact at Jefferson West and McLouth. West superintendent Scott Myers said he was expecting a drop of 10-15 students and instead saw a drop of 21 kids. An equivalent drop is expected in West's FTE numbers.

"We had our main declines in the high school and middle school," Myers said. "Four years ago we had a study done that showed we were growing and would continue to. That's not happening. Historically we pick up kids in middle school, and that didn't happen. I'm sure the economy has something to do with it. Maybe we had families that usually send kids over from the Seaman district who didn't want to spend on the gas. It's hard to say."

The decline comes after a budget year that saw the district cut $370,000 from its budget. Myers said that, as in the other districts, the district took the tack of trying to keep cuts as far away from the students' education as possible.

"We wanted to not effect the education of the kids as much as we could -keep the adjustments as far from the classroom as we could," Myers said. "We tried to cut any positions we did through attrition where we just didn't replace people who had left, or in cutting coach positions that weren't as necessary."

In the face of early estimates that the school's health insurance costs will rise 12 1/2 percent, the idea of further cuts in state aid is something Myers is trying to prepare for.

"We've got to make the decisions that least impact the classroom," Myers said. "Well have to wait and see what happens in November (with state revenue projections). A lot of our budget is wrapped up in people and you always hate to have to go that route.

"The good thing is that we've gotten a good beginning to this year, and we've got lots of exciting things going on in our classrooms."

McLouth superintendent Jean Rush was also staying positive despite a 26-student drop in head count from last school year to this one - 500 from 526. She said that drop may not be as significant when FTE numbers are finalized. Rush had projected a slight drop in enrollment but not to the extent of the final numbers.

"We took a little more of a hit than we thought," Rush said. "We always try to do a follow-up with students that leave to try to determine the reasons. Are they school district reasons? Sometimes they are, like when we don't offer a program the family or student is interested in. Sometimes the reasons are more supplemental, when the student is gone for family reasons, or economic concerns, or housing concerns. There are so many factors that can come into play. That's the reality of the economy at the moment."

USD 342 ended up having to come up with nearly $200,000 in cuts after raising the local option budget mill levy nearly a mill. Rush said the budget hike was a little bit deceiving as a four-mill capital outlay levy was rolled into the LOB mill. The McLouth school board also worked with Rush and the staff to put potential cuts into tiers of priority.

"We had our non-essentials in level one, where there would be minimal impact to the district, and up to level three, where the way we do business would have to change," Rush said. "We wanted to stay as far removed from the students' instruction as possible. We made our lists and met with the staff and showed them the list so they could see it. We eliminated extended contracts and one position, plus a couple more through attrition. Some departments worked to cut back on hours to keep from losing a position. We also eliminated some supplemental pay positions, like extra hours for teachers to help with curriculum, and a paraprofessional position. There were some places we decided not to purchase new textbooks."

McLouth also cut costs by "carpool-ing" with the Oskaloosa and Perry-Lecompton districts for bus trips for technical school students.

Rush said the round of extensive cuts was something the district worked hard on, and the idea of further cuts is an unfortunate concept.

"Now we've already made cuts to what feels like the bare bones, so the next round, if there ends up being one, will be that much more difficult," she said. "The less painful cuts have already been done. We're definitely scrutinizing the budget in much more detail than ever before."

Despite the financial hardships, Rush said it seems like the public understands the situation and it seems to have its side benefits as well.

"We've gotten off to a great start," she said. "Everyone is aware of the financial situation. I think everyone understands. We had to cut a custodial position and the teachers have been good about doing their part to help even in that area. All the staff is pitching in to help and do what they can."

We're in the mode of trying to hang on to the integrity of our programs and not let all this financial crisis drive the decisions. Some days we do better than others.

Original Publication Date: October 15, 2009

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