More than half of local school districts added students this year, a bright spot in a long-term trend of enrollment decline for northeast Indiana schools.
But the long-term decrease saps school districts of funding, since a majority of the money schools get to operate come from state funds tied to enrollment.
The 2019-20 enrollment numbers showed some improvements for districts in the four-county area, with seven of 13 public districts seeing an increase in the number of students.
But overall, all 13 districts have been in varying lengths of decline. Over the last 15 years, most schools have been declining from a high-point of enrollment for more than 10 years. Westview — the most recent school to hit a high enrollment mark — posted that record in the 2012-13 school year, seven years ago.
Six school districts’ high mark was in 2005-06 — the earliest year of data available — which means it’s possible enrollment has been steadily dropping for even longer.
In total, from 2005 to 2019, the 13 school districts have 3,341 fewer students enrolled.
Looking from the high mark to now, tiny Hamilton has lost the largest chunk of its enrollment, 54.6%, followed by Lakeland at 25.1%) and Prairie Heights 21.8%.
On the other side, Garrett-Keyser-Butler has lost the fewest students, dropping only 1% of its enrollment since a high mark in 2010, followed by Westview, which has declined 5.9% from 2012 and East Noble, down 10% from its high point in 2009.
Losing students has a huge financial impact for districts.
School districts get funding for their “educational fund” — the portion of the budget that can be used to pay teachers and building administrators, fund programs and pay for extracurricular activities — from a per-student stipend from the state.
Every school district gets a different amount based on a complex school funding formula, but across Indiana, the average is about $6,700 per student.
At that rate, losing six students can cost a district funding for an entry-level teacher, for example.
Although seven of 13 districts had enrollment gains this school year, in total, districts lost 172 total students from 2018 to 2019, accounting for approximately $1.15 million in per-student funding.
Enrollment decline and the loss of funding that goes with it are real problems with tangible effects, as families of Lakeland School Corp. can attest.
In spring 2019, Lakeland announced that it would have to shutter two elementary schools in an effort to quell an approximately $1 million per year budget deficit. Wolcott Mills in Wolcottville and Lima-Brighton in Howe were both operating at levels under 50% of their student capacity.
Since a high mark of 2,275 students in 2006, Lakeland’s enrollment dwindled to 1,907 at the start of the 2018-19 school year.
“After years of declining enrollment, when Lima-Brighton reached 40% capacity and Wolcott Mills reached 44% and it was obvious our entire corporation could fit in three versus five buildings, we had to make the fiscally responsible decision to downsize,” Superintendent Eva Merkel said.
This year, Lakeland lost another 163 students. Although parents of only 18 students attributed their transfers out to the consolidation, Merkel said it’s likely more people moved after the two schools were shuttered.
Westview gained 49 students and Prairie Heights picked up 76 following the Lakeland consolidation.
The problem is a difficult one to solve. LaGrange County as a whole is struggling to add new housing, which would allow more families to move in, and population growth among the English population in northeast Indiana is pretty stagnant, so schools don’t get big incoming kindergarten classes.
What Lakeland can do, Merkel said, is work on provided the best educational experience it can and then market that to families to encourage them to stay or to entice outside students to transfer in.
“We now have the ideal setting with all teachers being together at the same grade levels bringing best practices and collaborating around curriculum and resources,” Merkel said. “We’re bringing new math curricula and are seeing great student growth with reading using new methods at the primary level. We offer the most AP/dual credit opportunities in the county at the high school level. We have both PLTW Engineering and Biomedical pathways. We have tons of choices for electives for students no matter their post-secondary plans. All kids get exposed to the workplace skills our employers are demanding through embedded project-based learning. We have a team developing and sharing best social and emotional practices. We’re the only district in the county with an elementary robotics co-curricular program. What parent wouldn’t want to choose all that?”
Marketing strengths is one of the only options districts have if the population isn’t growing.
Garrett, which has the lowest enrollment decline in the region, has 15% of its enrollment coming from students who have transferred in to the district from other places.
Fremont is another place where administrators have been making overt efforts to draw in new students from outside the borders. Although Fremont’s enrollment has declined from a high of just over 1,200 in 2005 to a low of 908 in 2016, the district has increased enrollment each of the last three years.
“We might be one of the few schools that have grown in the last three years,” Fremont Superintendent Bill Stitt said. “I guess we’ve done a lot of things to attract families to advertising our brand, to getting our brand out there to families.”
Stitt said Fremont promotes its large roster of dual-credit courses — students can earn up to 66 college credits in high school — as well as small class sizes and new programs that are being added back like elementary Spanish.
Stitt was a building principal back in Fremont when enrollment was up in the 2000s, then left to take a superintendent job in a small district in Michigan. During the time while he was away as enrollment eroded, programs and teachers had to be cut as the funding that came with them evaporated.
“When I was in Michigan, I know programs were cut here, and teachers were cut,” Stitt said. “Now we’re in the time we can add. We’ve added new teachers. We’ve added new programs.”
On top of that, property owners approved a funding referendum in 2016, which helped to bolster the district’s budget.
For districts who have declining enrollment and declining funding, operating referendums are one of the few options schools have left to boost funding aside from waiting for state lawmakers to pass increases.
Fremont did it in 2016, and Stitt said when it expires in two years, he expects they may try to renew it in order to keep the momentum going.
Hamilton, Prairie Heights, Smith-Green have all recently passed their own funding referendums, too.
“To a lot of people, I think the referendum is going to be the new normal by most every school in Indiana to survive unless funding is changed at the state level. It will be the new normal,” Stitt said.