The unexpected drop in enrollment that led to Hills?boro High School?s drop from Class 3A to Class 2A earlier this month will have more serious ramifications district-wide?this year and beyond.
Superinten?dent Steve Noble said this year?s enrollment loss, combined with decreased state funding since 2008, will cause a district deficit approaching $750,000 over the next couple of years.
?This is not sustainable for our district,? he said. ?Budget cuts are unavoidable.?
In spring, the board of education approved a budget for the current school year based on a projected full-time equivalent decline of 10 students.
To cover the projected loss in state aid, the board had agreed to transfer $260,000 from its operating reserves?which is a ?savings account? the district uses when expenses temporarily exceed the budget.
But when the Sept. 20 count revealed the district?s FTE had actually dropped by 42 students instead of 10, the financial picture changed dramatically.
?To put it plainly, we have lost an entire class of students,? Noble said. ?This was completely unexpected.?
Between this past June and the Sept. 20 count date, 44 students, by head count, left the district.
?Of the 44, we anticipated 10 of them leaving?they had let us know this was their last year being here,? Noble said. ?Thirty-four of them, we didn?t.
?Forty-four over a summer is a hit for a school district that only has 600 to begin with,? he added. ?That?s a blow.?
The exit report the district compiles when students leave the district indicated that of the 44 students who left, six opted for home school?ing, virtual schools or learning center; seven transferred to a neighboring district; 12 transferred to another county; 14 transferred out of state; and two left the country.
The whereabouts of the remaining three are unknown.
Based on his review of the number of students qualifying for free meals, Noble has concluded that a significant number of the departing students came from lower-income families.
Since 2008, he said, the trend has gone upward to a high of 192 students qualifying for free meals in spring 2013. Thirty-eight of the 52 students who left the district this summer are free-lunch qualifiers.
?There?s a transient population in rural Kansas of poor people, and we?re not immune from that,? Noble said. ?There are theories out there about why.?
One theory is that assistance programs that support families for a time no longer do. Another theory is that changes in family relationships can be a factor.
Understanding the sources and reasons for the enrollment decline won?t help the district address its immediate funding concerns.
?Even if a favorable (state) Supreme Court ruling on the school finance case occurs, and our elected leaders in Topeka heed the courts ruling?which I believe is unlikely?any increase in state funding will not make up the deficit created by this massive enrollment decrease,? Noble said.
?Initial conversations have begun as to what our next steps will be regarding budget cuts.?
An ideal long-term solution, of course, is for community leaders to combine their vision and budgets in an effort to grow the city?s population base?particularly with an infusion of young families.
?I do think we do things better than most (small communities)?and that?s coming from an outsider,? said Noble, now is in his fifth year. ?I care about our community deeply, and I care about our success going forward.?
A more immediate solution will require changes at the state level, he added. And that means a serious reconsideration of priorities among the tax-paying public.
?We?ve got to wrap our heads around this one philosophical statement: Do we believe, or do we not believe, that public education is a statewide responsibility for every citizen, every business, every corporation to pay their fair share for a statewide public educational system??
Because of the mobility of modern families, Noble said taxpayers need to think beyond the boundaries of their local district.
?Forty-four kids in Hills?boro left Hillsboro,? he said. ?They went to some other community. The year before that, we had 20 of them come to us from somewhere else?including out of state.
?It?s not just ?we want to take care of our own.? Who are ?our own? anymore? They?re transient, their moving. We?ve got to do our best to educate them all because they may end up living here and working here?and that?s what we want.?
A different mindset
Noble said for rural school districts statewide to be able to provide a high-quality education for all students, the mindset in Topeka needs to change, too.
?We have lost our operating revenues over the years because of tax cuts and the economy,? Noble said.
?When the economy?s down, we?ve been told it?s not a time to raise taxes. When the economy turns northward, well, we have to cut taxes to spur the economy on even more.
?We?re in this constant dialogue with our legislators: When is the right time to increase taxes? I know that?s not popular. But that?s the truth of the matter.
?We?ve lost 44 kids since June,? Noble added. ?We?re not seeing the benefits of economic growth in Marion County?let alone (USD) 410?which was the motivation for the governor?s tax-cutting policies.?
Beyond lobbying for an increase in the base state aid per pupil?currently at $3,838 after a high of $4,400 in 2005?Noble said the state could help rural districts by simply adjusting the equalization funding that applies to a district?s local option budget.
Equalization funding is an effort to even the playing field for valuation-rich urban districts and poorer rural districts when it comes to the LOB.
?The state has decreased its level of equalization funding over the past many years to the point where now, in order for us to make up the difference that the state?s not supplying from the richer parts of our state, it?s increased local taxes 5 mills to help us operate,? Noble said.
?If the state would just equalize our funding?use the wealth that our state has, that everybody helped contribute to?it can help everybody, and that would lower our local taxes by 5 mills.
?It might increase state property tax by a little bit, but the net gain would be a property tax decrease for local patrons.?
Following a board goals retreat earlier this month, Noble said board members are ready to take a more aggressive approach to the state-funding issue.
?I felt really strong support from our board,? Noble said. ?I believe our board is going to be with the public. They are the representatives of the community.?