(Courtesy of The Detroit News)
Lansing — Rural school districts in Michigan’s Thumb put a premium on teachers certified in more than one subject, an effort to keep academic programs alive despite shrinking staffs and student counts.
Bridgeport-Spaulding Community Schools, south of Saginaw, folded its golf and cross country teams after struggling to round out rosters. Marquette Area Public Schools in the Upper Peninsula closed and sold elementary school buildings because there weren’t enough students to fill them.
Urban public schools such as those in Detroit, Flint and Pontiac get most of the attention in the discussion about declining student enrollment in Michigan. But dwindling enrollment also is a problem in many rural and even some suburban districts across the state.
Nearly 61 percent of the state’s 551 traditional public school districts faced some degree of declining enrollment between the 1995 and 2009 fiscal years, according to a recent report from the nonpartisan Citizens Research Council of Michigan. Data provided by the Senate Fiscal Agency indicates the overall public school enrollment dip has since continued and could extend into 2012-13. It has severe financial consequences, since much of Michigan’s education funding is based on how many students are enrolled in a district.
Every student lost will cost a Michigan public school a minimum of $6,846 in state aid this academic year, and the cost will be higher in many districts. But the consequences of lost students extend beyond finances as most schools prepare to begin classes after Labor Day.
“We’ve got to find a way to do more with less — and I’m not talking just about less money,” said Larry Kroswek, the superintendent at Harbor Beach Community Schools, tucked along the Lake Huron shoreline roughly 100 miles north of Detroit.
The 580-student Harbor Beach district, which has lost 29 percent of its students in the past decade, covets instructors who are certified to teach more than one subject so it can keep as many programs intact as possible. And a growing number of administrators in smaller school districts pull double duty, serving as both superintendent and a building principal.
It’s getting tougher for some districts to keep programs afloat each year, with state budget cuts reducing per-pupil foundation aid by roughly $300 in the fiscal year that starts Oct. 1. Schools that are losing students get hit with a double whammy.
Michigan was the only state to lose population overall between 2000 and 2010, according to U.S. Census figures. Public school enrollment dropped roughly 8 percent over the past decade.
The public school district for the city of Detroit, which had about 75,000 students last year, has lost more than half its students in the past decade — contributing to severe financial problems that resulted in the appointment of an emergency manager. The Highland Park district, on the brink of getting a state-appointed manager, has lost 65 percent of its enrollment in the past 10 years. Student counts for city districts in Pontiac and Flint have been cut in half. The Grand Rapids school district has lost a quarter of its students in the past 10 years.
Job loss, moves to other states and lower birth rates aren’t confined to urban areas. The same trends, usually to lesser degrees, have affected much of the state.
Administrators with Breckenridge Community Schools in mid-Michigan estimate they have lost 26 students from last spring’s enrollment. At least eight have moved out-of-state with their families.
“The No. 1 factor affecting our enrollment is jobs,” said Sean McNatt, superintendent in the 850-student district that has lost about 28 percent of its enrollment in the past decade.
After a couple years of padding its savings account, Breckenridge may have to dip into reserves this budget year to make ends meet.
The Upper Peninsula lost 2 percent of its population overall in the past decade. Ontonagon County lost 13 percent of its population, hit hard by job loss in the mining, shipping and paper industries.
Student count in Marquette’s public school system has never bounced back from the closure of K.I. Sawyer Air Force Base in the 1990s. The district, now with about 3,100 students, has lost 25 percent of its enrollment in the past decade and has sold closed elementary buildings. The district had to cut $2.9 million from its budget last year, and the falling enrollment complicates year-to-year uncertainty over state aid levels.
There are pockets of optimism around the state where long-declining districts expect to hold steady or possibly gain students this academic year.
Bridgeport-Spaulding schools reduced its cross country program to club status and eliminated golf in recent years as the district was losing money and roughly 100 students annually over the past decade. The roughly 1,440-student district could add students this year through the state’s schools of choice program.
Litchfield Community Schools in southern Michigan, helped by development in a nearby industrial park, might add 10-15 students from last year’s count of about 315. That would come after an enrollment decline of 48 percent in the past decade.
“It’s not gloomy everywhere,” said Anne Marie Riddle, who works as superintendent, principal and counselor in the district. “It’s a little nailbiting. But we have a vision, and it just seems to be falling into place. Hopefully, that’s happening in a lot of small towns.”