Enrollment in schools continues to decrease

Posted: Sunday, February 03, 2008

Public school enrollment in the Juneau School District continued to slide for the fifth consecutive year to reach the lowest student population since 1990, according to a recently released tally compiled by a state agency.

The district's average daily attendance is about 5,073 students in 2008, down about 83 students from 2007. The district's highest enrollment in the past 20 years was in 1999, when there were about 5,701 students. The 2008 numbers were released last month by the state Department of Education and Early Development.

Superintendent Peggy Cowan said district officials were well aware of the shrinking numbers, but she added schools in the district had not been adversely affected.

"To date, it hasn't had a huge impact on the program," Cowan said.

She said despite the falling numbers, the district was suffering from space issues.

She said Juneau-Douglas High School was overcrowded and the district still needed the new multimillion Thunder Mountain High School, due to open next school year.

"It will be a relief at this point on our crowded facilities," Cowan said.

She added that she thinks Juneau's school population will eventually grow and building the high school was a wise decision.

Lower pupil numbers typically mean less money for the district, but the state education funding formula is partly based on how many schools a district has. The more schools a district has, the more money it receives.

That's why district officials are anticipating a hefty boost in state education funding next year.

Even with the new money, however, the district is anticipating losing nine and a half teaching positions next year because of lower enrollment. But Cowan said she expects the teacher retirement rate and other forms of attrition to account for the lost positions, and she doesn't think she'll have to lay anyone off.

Statewide, enrollment dropped for the second straight year to its lowest level since 1998, for a total of about 128,977 students.

Most school districts, including those in Anchorage and Fairbanks, continued to lose students, while the Matanuska-Susitna Borough School District was one of the few districts that's been rising in recent years.

Greg Williams, a state demographer with the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development, said the state's overall population is growing at a small, steady rate but enrollment numbers would continue to fall. He said the slide was due to the fact that the youngest children of baby boomers are now in their 20s.

"The big wave has passed out of school age at this point," Williams said. "There's going to be a continued decline in enrollment for a while yet."

Many rural areas in Southeast Alaska have seen steep declines in student enrollment over the past 10 years, with some districts losing about half their students.

Coupled with skyrocketing fuel costs, lower enrollment numbers can really put a pinch on a district's resources, said Michael Byer, Haines Borough School District superintendent.

"It's tough," he said.

Byer was a principal in Hoonah from 2001 to 2006. He said he saw firsthand as the district lost more and more students and the funding that went with them.

Byer said it was difficult both for staff who didn't know if they'd have a job the coming year, and students who saw their favorite programs being cut.

And like Williams, Byer doesn't see the trend reversing anytime soon.

"There's nothing that clearly says that there's going to be any growth," Byer said.

• Contact reporter Alan Suderman at 523-2268 or by e-mail at alan.suderman@juneauempire.com

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