School numbers sliding

Local districts lose students, cope by cutting costs

Times file photo Frontier Local Schools Superintendent Brian Rentsche, left, shows school board members and visitors around the high school gymnasium to see construction progress after a board meeting in August. The district invested heavily in new facilities in the early 2000s, but subsequently has seen its enrollment decline by more than one-third. All districts in Washington County have seen students numbers fall during the same period.

School has been in session for more than two months now, and administrators for Washington County school districts have a detailed accounting of how many students they have.

Some might have picked up a handful compared to the 2016-17 school year, but overall the number of children attending public school in the county continued the long decline shown by state data. An analysis of total enrollment in Ohio from 2003-2004 to 2016-2017 shows that enrollment in schools statewide dropped by more than 235,000.

During the same period, enrollment in Washington County went from 9,675 K-12 students to 7,698, a decline of 22.9 percent. Enrollment drops, especially those that reflect a long trend, are a serious concern for school district administrators and boards, which depend on student numbers to keep their districts financed by state and local governments.

Fort Frye Local Schools Superintendent Stephanie Starcher said her district is constantly looking for efficiencies to make the most of available funding. Those include resource sharing with other districts for programs such as professional development for educators and advance placement courses for students.

The district, like Marietta City Schools, was able to reduce its health benefit costs for employees and looks closely at every position left open by retirement or other types of attrition to evaluate whether it should be filled or subject to revision, she said.

The district this past summer undertook energy efficiency measures to reduce the cost of utilities and maintenance for buildings, she said.

But there is a limit to efficiency measures, she said.

“The challenge with rural schools is that the geography doesn’t change, you still have to cover all those square miles for transportation — the buses still have to go to those stops — and you still have to heat the buildings,” she said. “And some things are mandated. We are still going to provide gifted services for the district, we still have to hire that person regardless of enrollment decline. We still need to meet legal mandates for special needs, even if it’s only one student, and it’s geographically impractical to share that service with another district.”

Fort Frye has gone from 1,223 FTE K-12 students in 2003-04 to a current enrollment of 914 students through the same grades — more, if you count the pre-schoolers — but there’s some good news in the numbers. The district has the biggest enrollment of kindergartners in four years, and Starcher thinks the long decline might have leveled off.

“I think it’s fair to say that trends in the past 10 years of declining enrollment, looking at how many are enrolling versus how many are graduating, are leveling off. We’ve probably stabilized at 900 to 1,000 students for the next five years, and we’ve built our five-year forecast on that,” she said.

In neighboring Warren Local Schools, superintendent Kyle Newton has been dealing with the trend of enrollment decline for at least 12 years. Before coming to Warren, Newton was a superintendent in Perry and Morgan counties.

“In all of Appalachia, people are having fewer children and they’re having them later in life. And during the recession, many people moved away,” he said.

The district has taken an aggressive strategy toward the decline, which has seen Warren go from 2,662 K-12 students in 2003-2004 to barely more than 2,000 in this school year. A bond issue approved earlier this year will allow the district to do a near-complete rebuild of its facilities, consolidating everything on a single campus with four buildings and athletic facilities. The design and engineering firms for the $63 million project have been engaged and construction manager-at-risk candidates were being interviewed this week.

“At Warren, we completely reorganized three years ago,”‘ he said. “There was a class size shift and we redeployed the staff so we could offer more programs with the same staffing. We created a middle school and added programs back in. When we’re finished with the building project, we’ll have everything on one campus and be able to offer more for the same money … or the same with less money, if that becomes necessary.”

Newton said the district’s strategy involves several parts, one of which is continuing to keep its senior government revenue stable.

“All the districts in Washington County need to be ready to fight for state funding,” he said. “This county is good, we are putting up one unified front in this war, saying, ‘We need more and we protect what we have.'”

Hiring practices have to reflect the reality, Newton said. The people coming into the district need to be nimble and flexible.

“You have to be smart about your hiring. You can’t hire a one-tool player,” he said. And the district needs to be ready to support flexibility, he added.

“We offer complete professional development, we pay for what’s needed to add licensure,” he said.

Newton is also confident the worst of the decline is over.

“We’ll have all new buildings and with open enrollment we can draw from outside the district,” he said. “I believe we will continue to grow.”

The district’s first priority, regardless of those challenges, remains constant, he said.

“The biggest thing is to be true to your educational values while adjusting your budgets,” he said.

Frontier Local Schools has been hit harder than any other Washington County district by falling enrollment numbers. Superintendent Brian Rentsche has been leading the district less than a year, but he’s familiar with its history. In the 1970s and 1980s, he said, employment from numerous industrial plants on the Ohio River kept population in the district up, and enrollment, at that time, of 1,500 students reflected that.

The district now has about 600 students. One school, Lawrence Elementary, has closed in the past five years, he said. The district made a substantial investment in buildings in the early 2000s.

Like other county superintendents, Rentsche said he has reason to hope the decline has hit a plateau.

“In the last year and a half, we are kind of leveling off, just fluctuating here and there,” he said.

The district now has three schools –Newport and New Matamoras elementaries, and Frontier High and Middle School, with a K-12 enrollment of 611 students, according to state data. The district, like others, is looking to greater efficiency in buildings — it is in the final stages of a green energy program to save energy – and analyzing staffing to meet changing demands.

The Appalachian Resins $1 billion ethylene cracking plant being proposed upriver in Monroe County offers a hopeful note for the district, he said.

For Marietta City Schools, the decline over the past 14 years has been 18 percent, according to the state data. Superintendent Will Hampton said the district closed some buildings just before 2005, which was one way of reacting to reduced enrollment.

Drops in student numbers create a complex web of problems for districts, Hampton said. The state data show enrollment this year at just more than 2,600 students; in 2004, it was 3,175.

“At the moment, we’re trying to adjust the staff to match the student numbers, but it’s difficult to do,” he said. “If you lose 20 kids in one year, you don’t lose them all in one place.”

Enrollment also includes bubbles or anomalies, Hampton said.

“For example, we have a 47-kid difference right now between first and second grade,” he said. That bulge and dip will continue for the most part through all grades and require adjustments in staffing as it moves.

The adjustment places additional burdens on the staff, including increases in class sizes and all the work that accompanies it – more homework to mark, more students requiring individual attention. Hampton said during the 14-year period average class sizes have gone from 16 to 18 students to 22 or 23, much of that increase occurring at the elementary school level.

“For teachers, it’s a big change. It’s just more, is what it comes down to,” he said.

The district watches population trends, he said, and it’s an established process that live births in the community are a reliable method of forecasting enrollment.

“We’ll get 90 to 92 percent of the live births, so if for example we had 200 live births this year, in five years we would see 90 to 92 percent of those children coming into our kindergarten,” he said.

The district is doing its planning on a landscape of changing social trends, which include smaller families, fewer young people moving into the district, and a larger array of options for school-age children, he said.

“We are constantly looking at how to effectively and efficiently serve our kids,” Hampton said. “We’re paying very close attention to this.”

The Marietta City Schools board of education last month discussed the prospect of placing a measure on the 2018 election ballot to finance a building program, a prospect that holds both promise and a host of difficult decisions, particularly in a district that appears to be overbuilt for the number of students it expects in the future.

“We have to ask ourselves how are we going to align ourselves, what gives us the greatest flexibility,” Hampton said. “We’re going to have to talk long and hard about that.”

At a glance

Change in enrollment 2004-2017 in Washington County school districts:

¯ Belpre: -26 percent.

¯ Marietta City: -18.05 percent.

¯ Fort Frye: -25.27 percent.

¯ Frontier: -35.68 percent.

¯ Warren: -24.72 percent.

¯ Wolf Creek: -10.46 percent.

Source: Ohio Department of Education.

Note: The state data changed from expressing student numbers in FTEs (full-time equivalents) to a headcount system in the 2008-09 school year, which means enrollments are slightly over-stated for the years following that change compared to the previous years.