A continuing trend of declining enrollment in Routt County public schools is bringing less money for an already cash-strapped district and raising questions about the economic factors behind the decrease.
Nowhere is the situation more grave than in South Routt County, where South Routt School District Superintendent Steve Jones estimates 26 fewer students will be attending school this year than last. In a district of about 400 students, the financial ramifications of losing two dozen students are serious.
Colorado public school districts are financed through a formula that allocates a certain dollar amount for each enrolled student. Districts receive half-funding for each kindergarten student and for certain preschool students. Fewer students mean less money, and less money typically forces difficult budget cuts.
The state finance formula this year will allocate about $7,050 to the South Routt School District for each of its students, except for the half-funding of kindergartners and some preschoolers. With 26 fewer students, the hit to South Routt's budget will be significant. The blow will be softened somewhat by a provision in the state school finance formula, which allows districts with declining
enrollment to be funded based on average enrollment over a four-year period.
Still, the amount of money coming into the district next year certainly will be less than what it received last year.
"We'll have to again probably make cuts because we have less students," Jones said last week.
As with most public school districts, about 80 percent of South Routt's budget is spent on personnel. When cuts are necessary, eliminating teachers and support staff often is the only option for districts that need to save substantial amounts of money.
"You almost have to turn to personnel (cuts) for any kind of significant savings," Jones said. "You still have fixed costs (you can't get rid of) -- you still have to turn on the lights and the heat and run the school buses."
The district's budget is balanced and likely will carry the district through the 2003-04 school year without reductions, but cost savings will have to be looked at next year, Jones said.
"Probably next spring we'll be in the very painful process of trying to determine what personnel we can get away without," Jones said. "It's just the truth of the matter."
It's a process Jones and the South Routt School Board know well. This spring, the district was forced to eliminate its middle school principal and two teaching positions to balance its budget without dipping into reserves, which the district had done the four previous years to meet expenses.
Declining enrollment has been a trend in South Routt over the past seven years, and demographic projections aren't encouraging. Enrollment has dipped to fewer than 400 students this year, from more than 470 just four years ago.
Most districts, including South Routt, use enrollment projections in estimating how many students -- and how much money -- they will have when the next school year begins. Jones said he used a low enrollment projection when putting together the school's preliminary budget in the spring, but he never could have guessed the district would lose so many students.
"I was pretty shocked," Jones said. "I didn't feel we'd lose more than 10 students. I was not looking for a 26-student decline."
Jones, South Routt Elementary School Principal Troy Zabel and David Bonfiglio, a member of the South Routt Economic Development Council, point to high costs of living and a lack of year-round, well-paying jobs as the factors most responsible for the continued decline in enrollment.
"It's very hard for families with children to make it here financially," Bonfiglio said. "Our entire county needs to diversify its economy to produce better year-round employment for families."
Better employment options include more ma-and-pa businesses that allow families to exist on their own as well as 10- to 20-employee businesses that curb the need for South Routt residents to travel to Steamboat for work, Bonfiglio said.
A lack of affordable living also is a factor in declining enrollment, Bonfiglio, Jones and Zabel said. Fewer families can afford to live in Steamboat Springs, so they move to South Routt and Hayden, where they're willing to pay more than the market traditionally has demanded, thereby driving up property values, Bonfiglio said.
"This area traditionally has been rather affordable," Bonfiglio said, referring to South Routt. "Now less people can afford to live here."
School enrollment is not decreasing because of perceptions in the community that the middle and high schools are poor learning atmospheres for children, they said.
"I really do believe the reason the enrollment is going down is that young families can't afford to live in the area and get established," Zabel said. "They're just not able to make it."
Steamboat Springs district
The effect of decreasing enrollment is not nearly as serious in the Steamboat Springs School District as it is in South Routt, though any loss of students -- and therefore dollars -- is significant to a district's budget, school officials say.
The Steamboat district has experienced an up-and-down enrollment trend over the past six years. This year, district enrollment will be down unless at least eight students enroll before the state's official Oct. 1 pupil count. The state uses Oct. 1 numbers to determine how many students it needs to fund in each of the state's 178 districts.
This year, Steamboat Springs School District will receive about $7,001 for each enrolled student, based on the state's school finance formula. Like the South Routt School District, Steamboat will benefit from the four-year-enrollment-average provision in the finance formula.
The district, which was forced to cut $332,000 from its preliminary budget in June largely because of an anticipated decline in enrollment and rising insurance costs, likely will be able to absorb any additional losses because of enrollment when it finalizes its official October budget, Finance Director Dale Mellor said.
The district expects to receive full funding for about 1,892 students, including about 20 from the North Routt Community Charter School. That figure, which is eight students fewer than what the district received funding for last year, represents a gradual enrollment decline in the district over a period of several years, Mellor said.
"We've gone up and down, but we're still not at the enrollment we were at in the mid-'90s," Mellor said. "It's been more of a downward trend."
Mellor said he believes cost of living is the biggest factor behind the decline.
"People with families can't afford to live here, so they leave," he said.
Scott Ford, chairman of the Steamboat Springs Chamber Economic Development Coun-cil, said numerous factors, including affordability and a change in demographics, have led to the decreasing number of young families settling in Steamboat.
"It would be very difficult to point to one cause," Ford said. "It's a combination of a difficult economy and demographic changes and certain decisions parents are making. It's kind of like the perfect storm."
Less career opportunities and a commodity-based economy make it difficult to attract young families to Steamboat, he said.
"This place has a lot of jobs but very few careers," Ford said. "It's tougher now than it may have been in the past."
Interesting demographic changes also play a part in the issue, Ford said.
The number of people born in the mid-'60s through the late '70s dropped off significantly from the baby boomer generation, he said. The result is fewer people in the work force who are at the age when they are most likely to begin families.
"Part of what we're seeing is that there's not enough employees," Ford said. "There's just not a lot of that generation in the population."
Ford also pointed to local private school options and home schooling as decisions parents are making that contribute to declining public school enrollment.
Hayden School District
Private schools don't exist in Hayden, where public school enrollment has begun to level after a couple of years of significant decreases.
Hayden School District Superintendent Scott Mader said he expects this year's enrollment may even increase one student from last year's number -- good news for a district that dealt with a 40-student drop-off just a couple of years ago.
"We feel fantastic that we're not declining because we have been declining over the past several years," Mader said. "(Decreasing enrollment) is a devastating thing. It just kind of makes everybody a little on edge."
In the past, the district was forced to eliminate teaching and staff positions through attrition to compensate for the decrease in funds.
Cutting teaching positions and school programs creates a Catch-22 of sorts, Mader said.
"People want the same kind of services you've always provided, but we have to decrease them. If you can't afford (those services) you have to cut them back," he said.
When schools do make cuts, some families choose to leave, which results in fewer students for the district and thus fewer dollars. Fewer dollars means more cuts have to be made, perpetuating the cycle.
The Hayden School District never was able to determine why drastic enrollment declines plagued it for several years, Mader said.
"There was not a common thread we could put a finger on," he said.
However, with a number of newer housing developments in the area and more proposed, Mader believes the Hayden School District is on the enrollment upswing. Starting a cyber school to attract students who aren't interested in the traditional school model also has boosted enrollment, he said.
Enrollment upswing isn't the situation in either South Routt or Steamboat Springs, where budget cuts are almost always the result of having fewer students.
Hearing about future cuts only makes it more difficult for school staff excited for the year, Jones said, because many will worry if they'll have a job when the next school year begins.
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