Enrollment set to rebound? Superintendent sees hope in the numbers

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Saturday, September 24, 2011
— Is enrollment in the Janesville School District poised to start climbing after eight years of decline?

Superintendent Karen Schulte thinks so.

The district's annual September count shows 9,586 students in kindergarten through 12th grade, a drop of 55 students since this time last year. But if you add in the district's pre-kindergarten programs, the drop was only three.

"I am very pleased because we're down three students, versus being down over 100 students, as we were the year before," Schulte said Friday. "I hope this is a trend in that direction, and I believe it is."

Schulte bases her belief in part on the steady increase in 4-year-old kindergarten, a program known as P4J. Not all of those children's families will choose public schools, but many do.

P4J enrolled 639 this fall. That's 105 more than were enrolled when the program started three years ago.

Five-year-old kindergarten numbers also increased this year, by 51, while first grade was up by 22, Schulte pointed out.

"I think the numbers are trending up, and I have no reason to believe those kindergarten students won't be with us through their elementary years, so I'm hopeful this is a turning point for our district and for our community," Schulte said.

There's anecdotal evidence that the district is attracting families, Schulte noted. Officials have heard repeatedly at the recent school-closing hearings from parents who said they're living in Janesville because of high quality schools.

The overall kindergarten-through-fifth-grade numbers are down by 24 this year, but like the district enrollment, that's not as steep a drop as in recent years, Schulte noted.

K-12 enrollments are 100 fewer than the district projected in March, but that shouldn't have a big effect on state aid projections because the aid formula averages three years of enrollments, said Keith Pennington, district CFO.

Pennington said the big question for the budget is how many extra teachers the district might have to hire this fall. The district already has added a kindergarten class at Harrison Elementary School and might add another teacher at another elementary school because class sizes there have exceeded the board's class size policy, said Steve Sperry, director of human services.

Sperry would not reveal the name of the other elementary school because, he said, the staff hadn't been told, yet.

The budget has funding for three "contingency" positions, so the new hires won't affect the budget, Sperry said.

However, Sperry is monitoring 14 other elementary "hot spots" where just a couple more students could tip the balance.

Officials can only speculate why K-12 enrollments continue to drop, although they've seen projections for years that predicted the decline.

"It's hard to even say where families are going," Cargile said. "It's our hope that with the new (St. Mary's) hospital coming in, our numbers will begin to increase."

Some other nuggets from the enrollment report:

-- Kennedy Elementary School increased by 50 students, while Lincoln Elementary decreased by 35 and Washington Elementary dropped 31.

The Kennedy influx was not driven by students transferring in from other districts, said Yolanda Cargile, director of at-risk and multicultural programs.

-- Other elementary schools with increases were Monroe, plus 11; Jefferson and Wilson, both plus 10; Van Buren, five; and Harrison, two.

-- Franklin was the only middle school to see an increase. Enrollment there went up 23. The three middle schools combined saw an increase of five.

-- Craig High School enrollment increased by one, while Parker High School dropped 60. The Parker loss was traced to 75 transfers to the district's Rock River Charter School since last year. Officials were not sure why Parker had so many transfers to the alternative-education program. Schulte said they were looking into it.

Enrollment figures in school-closing debate

The latest student count will play a role in the Janesville School Board's decision on Tuesday about closing a school.

The board is scheduled to decide whether to close a school next fall because of declining enrollments and a budget deficit of $9 million if the board doesn't raise taxes or dip into its reserves.

All three elementary schools on the chopping block—Harrison, Jefferson and Kennedy—saw enrollment increases this fall.

Kennedy had a jaw-dropping increase of 50 students. Jefferson is up 10 from last year, and Harrison is up two.

"One of the issues the board will need to wrestle with is, if we close a school, we have to look at where all those students will go," Superintendent Karen Schulte said Friday.

Officials did a student-by-student analysis recently and found that if they closed any of the three schools, the surrounding schools would not have enough classrooms to accommodate them.

The analysis assumed that the students would go to schools within a 2-mile radius of their homes. State law requires busing for students living farther than two miles from school, so sending children farther away would increase costs, Schulte noted.

An alternative strategy would be to shift students districtwide so that no child is farther than two miles from school, but that would be disruptive, as would busing, Schulte said.

"We aren't a factory model where we're dealing with things, so sometimes that makes our job and the school board's job more complicated," Schulte said. "We're not only dealing with people but also people's most precious commodity—their children. We are here to serve our parents and our kids—what's in their best interest—and sometimes that takes more dollars."

The district's elementary enrollment has dropped by about 800 students since 1999. That's enough students to fill two of today's elementary schools.

On the other hand, as several speakers have said at the recent public hearings, it would be costly to close a school now only to have to build a new one later.

Also looming is a proposal by board member DuWayne Severson to hold a referendum so voters could weigh in on school closings and on how much they want to be taxed. The school board is also slated to discuss that issue Tuesday.

Last updated: 6:16 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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