Student numbers drop in Fairbanks

Enrollment is in decline as military shifts personnel

Posted: Wednesday, November 21, 2007

FAIRBANKS - A number of Fairbanks-area schools with large military-dependent populations have seen marked declines in enrollment the past two years, the aftermath of shifts in the military population here, especially on Eielson Air Force Base.

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The Fairbanks North Star Borough School District has submitted its official enrollment count to the state, and the numbers are hundreds lower than district officials had projected.

This is the 10th year in a row the enrollment in the district as a whole has seen a decline. This year, there are 14,103 students in the district - 363 less than last year.

"Our big decreases are the military schools or schools with lots of military kids," said Mike Fisher, the school district's chief financial officer. "There's a lot of stuff going on with the war and deployments and reassignments."

The schools on Eielson Air Force Base have felt the largest enrollment pinch.

In the past two years, a time of drastic change on the base, which has lost more than 600 personnel since being realigned by the Base Realignment and Closure Commission in 2005, Crawford Elementary School has lost 24 percent of its students.

Anderson Elementary, the other elementary school on the base, has lost 19 percent of its students.

Combined, the three schools on Eielson - the two elementary schools and Ben Eielson Jr./Sr. High - have 192 fewer students than they did in 2005.

"It means we have smaller class sizes, which is good for the kids," Crawford Principal Shirley Brazel said.

The loss of students isn't such a good thing for the school district, however, which gets funding from the state based in part on enrollment figures.

The base student allocation, the starting figure of the state's complicated education funding formula, is $5,380 this year.

The school district was expecting to have, and budgeted for, 340 more students than they really do.

That means they'll be getting somewhere in the vicinity of $1.8 million less from the state than they planned.

"It'll have an impact," Fisher said of the lost revenue. "But we'll be able to deal with the drop in the current year."

The district will be able to cover that shortfall this year by dipping into their fund balance, a savings account of sorts, he said.

And the district isn't anticipating such a substantial drop next year, he said, especially since all of the drastic personnel changes at Eielson are now finished, a fact confirmed by Sgt. Jill Victor, a spokeswoman for Eielson.

Other schools that serve large military populations have also been hit with lower student counts the past two years.

Ladd Elementary and Tanana Middle School, both located just across the northern border of Fort Wainwright, have seen double-digit percentage drops in enrollment. Ladd has 18 percent fewer students than two years ago, while Tanana saw a 16 percent drop.

Lathrop High School, the high school closest to the Army base, has seen a 12 percent decrease.

Lathrop has 158 fewer students this year than it did two years ago, making the city of Fairbanks' other high school, West Valley, the largest school in the district. West Valley has only seen a modest decrease of 29 students since 2005.

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