Attendance at Kenai Peninsula Borough public schools is below last year's and below the district's projections. The new numbers continue a downward trend that began in 1997.
The head counts are bad news for the district, which receives state and borough funding based on the number of students. The administration is examining the numbers from the state's official count period, which ended Friday, and working on their implications for the budget process.
"We are being extra conservative," Superintendent Donna Peterson said.
On Friday, the official enrollment in the district's 40 schools was 9,847. Last year, the comparable count was 9,963.
Historically, the district's enrollment tended to increase annually, with the recession of 1987 to 1989 being the only dip. But the enrollment peaked during the 1996-97 school year at 10,396 and started dropping.
Enrollment during the 2000-01 year showed a slight increase above the previous year, but the decline has resumed, and enrollments are down to 1993 levels even though the overall borough population has risen.
A major factor influencing enrollment is demographic changes. According to the 2000 census, the peninsula has fewer small children than it did a decade ago, confirming school trends.
Even though the overall population has climbed, most of the new people are too old to have school-age children and the fastest-growing age group is seniors older than 85.
For the past several years, more district students have graduated from 12th grade than enter the schools as kindergartners or first-graders. This year, for example, attendance records show 578 kindergartners and 714 high school seniors.
So far, the district has about 290 fewer students than anticipated based on last year's numbers.
The shortfall is likely to cause budget reductions for the rest of this school year and lead to staffing cuts for next year.
Melody Douglas, the district's chief financial officer, said the enrollment drop will cost the district money during the rest of this school year, but estimates as to how much are not yet available. She will analyze the numbers and make more detailed projections in the next few weeks.
"Obviously we do have to bring our budget into alignment with this enrollment," she said.
Douglas confirmed that schools with significant enrollment drops may lose teachers next year.
The biggest difference between the projected and actual enrollment was in the Connections program, the district's home-school partnership program.
The administration had predicted that Connections' rapid growth would continue and its enrollment would hit 600 this year. But instead its enrollment actually dropped by 33 and is at 429.
The school showing the largest number decline was Soldotna High School, which also experienced a big drop last year. Enrollment there had been expected to go up but went down instead, and with 508 students, the school is 52 shy of expectations.
"I'm not exactly sure what the deal is," Assistant Principal Sean Dusek said.
The school is checking what happened to the students who left. Most seem to have moved away from the area, but the school will look for other factors such as transfers, he said.
Many other schools in the district have fallen short in enrollment, especially in the Homer area. At Homer High School, enrollment went down instead of up, ending up at 472, 40 below expectations. Paul Banks Elementary also decreased by the equivalent of a whole classroom, from 229 last year to 201.
Other schools showing major shortfalls compared to predicted enrollments are the Kenai elementary schools Mountain View (down 28 with 347 enrolled) and Sears (down 23.5 with 348 enrolled).
On the other side of the coin, some district schools show unpredicted increases in enrollment.
The largest surplus was at Tustumena Elementary School in Kasilof, which stood at 256, 30 above projections, as of Friday.
Principal Ken Halverson said new students had been coming in throughout the fall, with another new one coming in Tuesday.
Most of the newcomers are clustered in grades four through six. The district allotted its last unallocated staff budget to give the school another half-time teaching position, he said.
"In the school business, it is the population that pays the bills," he said.
Tustumena had a half-time kindergarten teacher, Katie Blossom, whom he moved to teach a new section of fourth grade. The school combined its two small kindergarten classes into a single class and converted five classes in grades four through six into six. The changes dropped the upper-grade class sizes from 30 to 23.
The changes will go into effect Monday, he said.
Other schools showing significant, unpredicted growth are Soldotna Middle School (28 above projections with 563), Redoubt Elementary in Soldotna (23 above projections with 421) and the off-road village school at Nanwalek (17 above projections with 70).
The Aurora Borealis Charter School enrollment also is up 29 from last year to 131, but the Kenai school, which has a waiting list, had planned on expanding.
The district has examined factors causing enrollment declines over the past several years. One hypothesis has been that peninsula students leave the district to home school or enroll in Interior Distance Education of Alaska (IDEA) a home-school partnership program run by the Galena school district.
Carol Simpson, the IDEA representative for the Kenai Peninsula, explained why that is unlikely. State law restricts the numbers of students IDEA can enroll, and this year its peninsula enrollment has dropped, too. As of Friday, it had 605 students in the borough, excluding preschoolers, she said.
The district will spend the next several weeks analyzing the new enrollment data and the significance.
Monday, at the school board meeting in Homer, the administration will present its enrollment projects for the next five years. The superintendent described next year's estimate as "flat-lined."
When the board next meets in Soldotna Nov. 19, the administration will report on the final totals from the October count period and how the numbers will change the current year budget.
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