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Falling Enrollment Pushes Small Colo. School District to $46,000 Per Pupil

I’ve heard my mom say on more than one occasion that people come in all shapes and sizes. The same is true for school districts, too. Rebecca Jones at Education News Colorado provides some interesting insights with a story focused on Colorado’s smallest, and steadily shrinking, school district: Agate. When you see the numbers and the trends that tell the story, you can see why the “State’s smallest district ponders future”:

A decade ago, enrollment in Agate peaked at 132. Since then, the decline has been steady. And like many small school districts across Colorado struggling with declining enrollment, the prospects for remaining a viable independent district grow slimmer with each departing child.

To serve its 26 students – 12 in high school, five in middle school and nine in elementary school – Agate has a nearly $1.2 million budget for the 2010-11 school year. More than 70 percent of that comes from the state, which sets aside a relatively generous per-pupil allotment for rural school districts, and lets a district with declining enrollment average out its head count over four years, so a sudden drop in enrollment won’t cause quite so catastrophic a loss of revenue.

That means Agate is actually collecting state funds this year as though it were serving 51 students rather than the 37 it projected it would have, the 33 it opened the year with or the 26 it has now.

You were doing some back-of-the-envelope math there, weren’t you? So was I. At the beginning of the current school year, Agate’s budget stood at roughly $36,000 per student. Now it stands closer to $46,000 per student. It’s easy to make light of the problem, but how many other districts would experience a 20 percent drop in student enrollment just because the economy forced a couple families to move away? That would be a loss of nearly 1,000 students in an average-sized Colorado school district or more than 17,000 students in the state’s largest district: Jeffco.

As the story explains elsewhere, the district benefited from a 2003 state capital construction grant worth $1.8 million to install a new kitchen and cafeteria, and to update gym facilities. And a search through the district website reveals Agate now has fewer than two students for every employee, and about five students for every board member. (The student:employee ratio in a typical larger Colorado school district is somewhere between 7:1 and 8:1.) While it might provide interesting fodder for an experiment on the value of small class sizes, the model is clearly unsustainable.

What now? This is where some of Agate’s pondering comes in:

Among the possible scenarios: the high school could close and the older students could be sent elsewhere; the district could consolidate with another nearby district; it could close altogether and be absorbed by one or more neighboring districts; it could again seek a tax increase from local voters; or it could try to attract students online.

What about starting an online program, as rural districts like Branson, Vilas and Karval have done?

“In my mind, if everyone in the state started an online academy, is that really necessary?” asked Lyndon Burnett, chair of the Agate board of education and past president of the Colorado Association of School Boards.

“Would we be starting it to really serve our kids or just to bring money into the district? If we had a legitimate reason for doing it, and if it was really helpful to kids, that would be another story,” he said. “But I don’t feel we should do it just to raise money. There are all kinds of programs out there now, and it’s just not feasible for every school district who has problems.”

More radically, are we approaching a major shift in education and the meaning of district boundaries? Not that that discussion alleviates the short-term pain in the state’s smallest district. Clearly, there are many tough decisions on the immediate horizon in Agate. One thing this story highlights is the real impact of factors outside the education world and the need for a difficult policy decision to address it. A choice between saving students and saving an institution is one that many understandably wish to avoid, but if that’s what it comes down to the choice is easy.