Steamboat Springs A county birth rate decline from the 1980s to mid 1990s combined with a cost of living increase has caused a decrease in school enrollment in Routt County this year.
School size is decreasing, which means a smaller budget for two of the county's three districts.
With of a steady decrease in county births from 1982 to 1995, more students are graduating from Steamboat and Hayden school districts than those entering elementary schools.
Under the state's financial formula, which is largely dictated by student enrollment, those fewer students require school districts to collect less money.
For Steamboat an estimated loss of 37 students has put a significant dent in this year's budget. Steamboat's financial manager Doug Mellore said the actual loss of money from enrollment decline would be close to $150,000 in annual budget of $11 million.
Hayden School District, Superintendent Scott Mader said if enrollment does not change, a decrease of 25 students could mean a drop in that district's budget by more than $25,000 this year and at least $120,00 in the next five years. Hayden's annual budget is estimated at $4 million.
"Unless enrollment goes up, I am not going to be optimistic," Mader said. "With some developments, I can not see how (enrollment) is going to stay down."
Mader said he is hoping housing development plans pending before the city will boost school enrollment in the next few years.
Although a final enrollment total will not be available until the state's official count in October, Hayden estimates an enrollment of 452 students this year.
Steamboat's Superintendent Cyndy Simms said her district enrollment should be 1,911 students, which is a decrease from last year's enrollment of 1,947.
Under the state's financial guidelines, Hayden and Steamboat can soften the impact of enrollment decline by averaging the student population of the last four years. For Hayden that means only 20 students would drop from student funding. Steamboat is facing a decrease of 25 students, Mellore said.
But, if enrollment continues to go down, budgets will see larger cuts in the next few years as fewer students are calculated in the district's funding formula.
According to a population study done by the Castle Rock-based Western Education and Public Planning, Inc., Steamboat's enrollment is not going to increase any time soon.
The company surveyed local officials and private education providers about employment, residential development activity and other factors contributing to demographic changes. In what the company considered to be its most reasonable scenario, enrollment should steadily drop to 1,852 students in Steamboat by 2006.
The company, which completed the study in March, predicted that an increase in county births from 1996 would level off or boost elementary school enrollments in the next few years.
But that increase in enrollment is not predicted to match the larger high school classes graduating in the next five years.
For Steamboat this year, the schools with the lowest enrollment will be Soda Creek and Strawberry Park elementary schools. Strawberry Park was hardest hit, dropping from 436 to 392 students.
Simms said the loss of 44 students is a combination of moving a large fifth grade class to the middle school and losing about 15 students to the new North Routt Charter School. Because the school district is still funding the North Routt Charter School students, the new school's enrollment is added to the districts' 1,911 total but taken away from Strawberry Park's attendance.
Birth rates are not the only way to predict school populations, Simms said. Economic factors can also influence enrollment.
"Steamboat is really hard to do enrollment projections for," Simms said, pointing to cost of living and local construction projects as affecting their enrollment.
In the last few years, Hayden has seen a drop in its enrollment by more than 100 students with a 1998 count of 554, financial manager Jnl Linsacum said.
"(People) are moving out for other jobs," Linsacum said. "Its too expensive to live here. Now, people move to Craig to work in Steamboat."
South Routt School District's enrollment should only vary slightly from last year's 444 students, Superintendent Steve Jones said.
But, recent large drops in enrollment also affected its budget. Last year the district officials were surprised when 26 students left the area.
By being able to average the yearly count with the past three years, Jones said the district was able to soften the blow of budget cuts but it has been forced to change how it spends its money.
"It means we take a conservative approach to budgeting. You base the factors, revenue and expenditure on what number you think you will have," he said.
Those budget numbers become even harder to adjust when the final count is not realized until October and most teaching and staffing contracts are finalized at the start of the school year in September.
Simms said Steamboat knew its elementary schools would be declining in numbers this year and did not rehire one and a half teaching positions.
She also said with a state amendment that gave a one percent increase to all Colorado school budgets, an extra $118,000 for Steamboat, the district would be able to cover the $150,000 less in pupil funding.
In South Routt, Jones said he is predicting enrollment to stay steady or even increase in the next few years, though incoming kindergarten numbers are still lower than those of graduating seniors.
With developments like those at Stage Coach drawing more students, Jones is expecting families to move to the South Routt district as the cost of living climbs in Steamboat.
"Stage Coach, Oak Creek and South Routt are still less expensive places to buy homes," Jones said. 'Families come down here to live and work in Steamboat. We're a bedroom community for Steamboat. That is the phoneme we see."
To reach Christine Metz call 871-4229
or e-mail cmetz@steamboatpilot.