ORIGINALLY WRITTEN DON RATZLAFF
Wanted: Students for excellent, small-town school district in southern Marion County. Families welcomed to relocate, too, but not required. Great benefits.
* * *
You probably won’t see that classified ad running anytime soon, but it does reflect both the challenge and a potential solution discussed in a joint meeting of Goessel’s school board and city council Nov. 9.
The two governing bodies of the community of around 565 people in southwest Marion County met at the invitation of Superintendent John Fast to talk about ending the trend of declining enrollment in the Goessel schools.
Fast said at the outset that he had three goals for the meeting: to open lines of communication, to publicize the school board’s concerns about enrollment and to express optimism that, in partnership, those concerns can be effectively addressed.
“The answers may not be overnight…but I think we can turn this thing around over time,” Fast said.
He noted Goessel’s schools can boast of “outstanding” student achievement and good facilities, but what keeps the situation from being healthy
is the district’s steady decline in enrollment since 1996, when it reached a high of 339 students.
Each year since then, the number of students has slowly fallen to the current figure of 282 for the current school year. Fast said the projected enrollment for 2005-06 is 271.
“That makes 10 straight years of decline since 1996,” Fast said.
The loss of 68 students translates into a loss of some $440,000 in state aid, he added.
In an effort to compensate for the loss of income, Fast said the district has eliminated one administrative, 2.5 teaching positions, two half-time aide positions and reduced the number of student field trips and other operating expenses.
He said the district’s ability to qualify for various grants has been a life support to this point, particularly the charter-school grant from several years back. But Fast noted that grant is now finished.
He said improvements to school facilities in recent years, including the new running track and press box, have been possible only because of the grant funding.
Fast said the enrollment trend raises two long-term questions:
n How much longer can the district operate with declining income without cutting technology and academic and athletic programs?
n What will the effect on the community be if the school reaches the point where it cannot continue operating?
Fast said declining enrollment is a common challenge in rural Kansas school districts. He noted the 2000 census indicates Marion County bucked a long-term population decline with a 3.7 increase, but student enrollment did not mirror the increase.
School board member Mary Rosfeld said one reason Goessel’s enrollment has done as well as it has is that the schools attract students from beyond the geographic boundaries of the district.
Fast said 38 to 40 students in this year’s enrollment come from beyond those boundaries. He quickly added that the district does not recruit out-of-district students, in keeping with an unwritten understanding between districts.
If the number of out-of-district students are removed from the equation, Fast said the number of in-district students is declining “dramatically.”
When open discussion began, no one recommended that Goessel begin actively recruit students from outside the district. But several suggested that more actively promoting the benefits of the schools and the community might be key to a solution.
Fast said the Smoky Valley (Lindsborg), South Haven and Sedgwick school districts have seen increases in enrollment in large part because they have established a niche that is drawing students from larger population centers nearby.
Asked by Councilor Racquel Thiesen what Goessel’s niche might be, Fast suggested a combination of security, outstanding staff, a caring board and various areas of student achievement, including music.
Thiesen said while working for the Chamber of Commerce in Newton, she helped with that community’s “Small town, no apologies” promotion through Wichita media. The campaign resulted in some enrollment increases in Newton schools.
She said Goessel may be in the same situation, and that promoting the virtues of a town doesn’t have to be an “ugly” strategy.
State Rep. Don Dahl, who was invited to participate in the meeting, said he felt Goessel, because it was situated within easy driving distance of Newton and McPherson, was actually better situated than many other small school districts within the boundaries of the 70th District he represents in Topeka.
“You’re pretty lucky compared to Centre, which isn’t even close to a (sizeable) town,” he said. “As close as you are to Newton and even Wichita, you just need to let people know what you’ve got.”
Beyond attracting more out-of-district students, expanding Goessel’s resident population was seen by many as a second priority.
Mayor Peggy Jay noted the city of Goessel has improved its infrastructure in recent years, including a new water tower that with an increased capacity from 600 to more than 800 people.
She said the improvements have been completed without an increase in taxes. However, the city did have to raise its mill levy recently after it discovered that its property valuation that last three or four years had been based on inflated estimates. When the valuation was adjusted downward, city revenue from property taxes followed suit.
Jay said Goessel does have residential areas that would be ripe for new-home construction, but to this point the city has been unsuccessful in attracting a developer.
Jay said Goessel’s population has increased slightly in recent years, but “a lot of our population growth is retirement age.”
Several participants said efforts need to be made to attract young families to the community, and that creating more jobs in Goessel would help.
When the floor of discussion was opened to the handful of guests present, resident Anton Epp suggested one way to attract new businesses would be to repeal property taxes in favor of a “head tax” per resident.
Dale Wiens, a Goessel teacher who was in the gallery guests, spoke in favor of economic development in Goessel.
“If we stay (where we are), we’ll stagnate,” he said.
Fast closed the meeting by saying the conversation about Goessel’s future needs to continue. He said this first meeting intentionally focused on the school board and city council, but eventually the entire community needs to participate.