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home : news : news October 3, 2015

11/13/2013 12:01:00 AM
School enrollment trends continue on declining path

Editor's Note: This is the first in a series of articles examining school enrollment trends, how they relate to historic numbers in the area, and what, if anything, they mean to the year-round future viability of this community. This first article presents current data, much of which was provided after "fall student enrollment counts" by Harbor Springs Public Schools superintendent Mark Tompkins

By Kate Bassett, Harbor Light Newspaper

The trend in Harbor Springs Public Schools-- and many other schools in the Charlevoix-Emmet Intermediate School District-- is clear: enrollment numbers are dropping. The last decade has seen a continual downturn in students in every district in the ISD, though percentages vary drastically, with Boyne City dipping just three-percent from the 2002-2003 school year to 2013-2014 academic year numbers, while nearby Boyne Falls dropped 51.6-percent in the same amount of time. Harbor Springs has experienced a decline of 24.4-percent.

'Too early for big concerns...'

"It's still too early for big concerns," said Harbor Springs Superintendent Mark Tompkins in a recent interview. Tompkins has been watching the trend since arriving in Harbor Springs, and has often said the district was in a process of "right sizing" itself, following several "bubble" years of larger classes.

For the last few years, Harbor schools have been closed to "schools of choice," meaning a child who resides in another district could not go to school in Harbor Springs (unless grandfathered in or already had siblings attending). This year, the Board of Education voted to strategically re-open the district's doors for certain grade levels in an attempt to level out some of the smallest class sizes (currently, the district's second grade only has a total of 39 students).

Tompkins said based on the limited number of students who opted to take advantage of the several grade level openings-- six students total-- for 2013-2014, that will likely "not be the answer" for any long-term needs to maintain student enrollment.

Still, Tompkins said he will continue to review student numbers and discuss schools of choice openings annually with members of the board.

In information presented to the Board of Education on Monday, November 11, Tompkins listed several factors he believes have contributed to the decline in enrollment, including Michigan's economy, loss of construction jobs/skilled trades combined with fewer "white collar" opportunities, population loss in the state, changing demographics, and Emmet County's population trends-- there are fewer people residing here in every age group except "over 50."

Across the bay, Petoskey's school enrollment has only dropped by 3.6-percent in the last decade, and student enrollment actually increased from 2012-2013 fall counts by 13 students.

Looking to United States census data creates a clear picture of differences between the Petoskey and Harbor Springs zip codes that goes well beyond size. According to the 2010 census, the median age in Petoskey (for zip code 49770) was 40. In Harbor Springs, the median age was 50. Petoskey's "own child under 18" in households made up 21.4-percent of the population (amounting to 3,614 children). The Harbor Springs zip code (49740) had 18.2-percent of children under the age of 18 in households, which totaled 1,279 youths.

Perhaps the most telling number-- a number that very likely has increased at least slightly since 2010-- was in the housing occupancy category. The 49740 zip code (Harbor Springs) has 44-percent of households listed as "seasonal, recreational, or occasional use"-- a total of 2,718 homes. Petoskey, in contrast had just 19.7-percent (or 1,895 homes) listed as seasonal, recreational, or occasional use.

In some ways, this strange seasonal demographic has been a positive for Harbor Springs Public Schools. Since non-homestead (second homes and commercial) property values tend to be much higher than homestead (year round residential) values -- some $649 million in non-homestead to some $355 million in homestead according to the ISD's Educational Directory for 2013-2014 -- the district is funded differently than almost all schools in Michigan. Instead of getting per-pupil funding like all other "Proposal A" districts, Harbor Springs actually passes a non-homestead millage tax each year, which accounts for more than 90-percent of its operating budget.

Wealthy district

Despite a decline in property values in recent years, Harbor schools still have more money per pupil than any other school in the ISD, and unlike all other schools in the area, the declining enrollment does not necessarily negatively impact the district's budget.

"The pros of smaller numbers for a district like Harbor Springs are that we can have small classrooms with lots of individual attention, and have less competition for extra curricular activities like sports and music," Tompkins said, adding the district's resources will "hopefully" remain stable enough to "do more with fewer kids."

The cons of course, are just a flipped side of the same coin-- as Tompkins noted that too small of class sizes could still result in a reduction of course offerings, fewer teachers, and potential loss of some sports or very small drama/music programs.

According the the information he presented to the Board of Education, the 10 year outlook doesn't appear promising in terms of a change in trends. If Kindergarten numbers hold at around 54, the assumed total number of students in the district will drop from 828 in the 2014-2015 academic year to just 676 in 2024-2025.

"In three years we will see the effects in the middle school, in terms of number of teachers," Tompkins said of Harbor's current enrollment situation. "But we already have made changes to scheduling, eliminated teaming etc. We like what we are doing now and won't make changes until we have too."

Looking back 23 years ago, to when the debate on whether or not to build Blackbird Elementary School was settled with voters, the number one reason the additional building was being pushed was an ever-increasing enrollment trend. According to a Harbor Light archive from the week of August 29-September 4, 1990, the "key concern" was an uptick in enrollment (based on recent student counts, birth rate trends, etc.).

The district had been growing steadily, the article noted, from a low in 1985-1986 of 860 students to 1,022 pupils during fall, 1990. Enrollments in the elementary school at the time rose from 362 to 520. By 1994-1995 is was projected, through birth rate and preschool counts, that elementary school numbers would increase to 700 or even 800 students.

In 2007-2008, the total number of students in the Harbor Springs School District (K-12) still fit with that early 90s trend, with 1,115 students enrolled. Most classes had between 70-80-some students, although that year's Kindergarten had a 100 student "bubble." That mid-70/80 student Kindergarten class size returned in 2008-2009.

That enrollment trend continued until 2010-2011, when incoming Kindergarten class numbers fell sharply to 59 students. The following year had just 41, and the next two years have remained in the mid-50s.

For reference, the mid-1980s elementary enrollment numbers would have averaged a class of about 53 students per grade level.

"I think about this topic a lot, but I don't worry too much," Tompkins said about the current enrollment trends. He said that some of the smallest districts in the ISD (not Harbor Springs) may be on the verge of being too small, but are for the most part "hanging on" and will likely continue collaboration efforts before consolidation is ever even considered.

In terms of Harbor's school population, Tompkins had three bullet points listed in his packet to the Board of Education: changes in staffing will continue to occur, with one less teacher per year in the elementary school; there are four years until the reduced numbers impact middle school programming and staffing; seven years until it impacts high school programming, staffing, and extra-curricular activities.

"But it's also important to remember, enrollment numbers can change quickly," he said.

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