Area reacts to loss
Outgoing high school seniors continue to outnumber incoming kindergartners in Buena Vista, Clay and Dickinson counties, according to a head count released Feb. 16 by the Iowa Department of Education.
The enrollment trend is a concern for school superintendents who set local budgets based on state aid. A majority of state funding for education is based on a per-student formula and most of the area's administrators are struggling to cut already tight budgets.
The region's 15 school districts have 116 fewer students than a year ago, according to the Department of Education. Superintendents in northwest Iowa's smallest school districts often have fewer options. Albert City-Truesdale saw the area's biggest enrollment decline, from 251 students to 222 for a loss of 29 students in the past year. There are no extra sections to combine.
School officials there recently voted to share athletic programs with the Sioux Central School District in Sioux Rapids. Steve Mitchell, the Albert City-Truesdale superintendent, said other agreements may become necessary.
"We've got some sharing decisions that we are going to have to make," he said.
Mitchell is navigating a process that is encouraged by one of the state's top education officials. Iowa Department of Education Director Ted Stilwill said high schools with less than 200 students begin to exhibit what he called differences in instructional opportunity.
Teachers in Iowa's smallest high schools tend to be paid less and have fewer years of experience, according to Stilwill's data. Students in the smallest schools typically have fewer choices in the areas of math and science. ACT composite test scores were often lower.
"The state should encourage all high schools to have a projected enrollment that is greater than 200 students," Stilwill told members of the State Board of Education in his report.
A third of Iowa school districts had fewer than 200 students at the high school level, according to a 2003 report from Stilwill's office.
Statewide, Iowa educators have seen seven straight years of enrollment declines.
In Dickinson County, only Spirit Lake gained students from 2002-03 to 2003-04, according to the new figures. The district went from 1,260 to 1,275 for a 15-student gain.
Elsewhere, Harris-Lake Park lost 14 students, from 312 to 298. Okoboji lost nine students as enrollment went from 883 to 874. Terril went from 180 to 162. The 18-student loss played a factor as Terril School Board members voted in January to enter a K-12 sharing agreement with the Graettinger School District.
Sharing agreements and decisions to close schools are common in districts that have seen several years of student losses. The numbers can add up to big chunks of lost revenue.
Spencer, the area's largest school district, receives $4,648 for every student counted in the state's enrollment formula. School districts throughout the state can gain - and lose - similar amounts per student with enrollment shifts.
Over the past 10 years, the Spencer School District officials have been a slide of more than 300 students, based on the state funding formula. Two elementary buildings on the east side of town have been converted to other uses in the past two decades.
When class sizes get below 20, the Spencer superintendent begins looking at ways to merge sections of elementary students.
Storm Lake is one of few schools in the region to see a growth trend, as is looking at adding - a new community-wide elementary and a performance auditorium.
At AC-T, Mitchell feels schools can't be judged on size alone.
"Districts may be more willing to give up some things more than others," he said. "It may be athletics. It may be upper-level high school classes. But they may not be receptive at all to giving up decent class sizes of 17 or 18 in an elementary building. Why would you want to close your elementary building down when you've already got ideal class sizes and relatively stable enrollment?"
Mitchell said Iowa's rural school districts should offer what they can and share what they can't. Christensen also wants to see the small school climate preserved.
"I think there's opportunities in the small schools where kids are names and not numbers," Christensen said.