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Decrease in WV’s public school enrollment speeds up

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Decrease in WV’s public school enrollment speeds up
By Ryan Quinn, Education Reporter, WV Gazette-Mail

West Virginia’s public school student enrollment dropped nearly 2,760 students from last school year to this one, more than double the declines in the past two years, according to data released last week by the state Department of Education.

It’s the biggest one-year decrease in about 15 years, although the establishment of the state’s pre-kindergarten program since 2002-03 might limit direct comparability over that time.

Only nine out of the 55 counties saw increases in overall enrollment — counted for early childhood through 12th grade — from last school year to this one. The northern counties of Berkeley and Monongalia saw the biggest raw-number gains, while Kanawha and Cabell counties, home to West Virginia’s two largest cities, saw the biggest drops.

“We’re losing people all the time because of the job market here,” Kanawha schools Superintendent Ron Duerring said. “People are looking for employment.” Putnam County dropped 31 students, to 9,761 students.

After a 221-student increase from 2011-12 to 2012-13, the Mountain State’s enrollment dropped 1,296 students in 2013-14 and 1,114 students in 2014-15. This school year’s drop is about a 1 percent decrease in state public school enrollment over the year before, dropping the number to 277,142 — about 4,956 students, or 1.8 percent, less than five years ago.

U.S. Census figures released earlier this year showed that the Mountain State, which has among the nation’s oldest populations, lost residents last year at the fastest rate in the nation. The drop in students this year will affect school funding for counties because the state school-aid formula automatically lowers the amount of money for school systems that lose pupils. The count this school year will be used to gauge funding for next school year.

Joe Panetta, chief operations officer for the education department, said funding is actually based on full-time enrollment, a different way of measuring students that doesn’t count them all equally through, for instance, counting a half-time prekindergarten student as only half a student. He said the department is still calculating the full-time enrollment but, assuming the two enrollment figures are similar and per-student state aid funding remains the same, the state aid decrease from the enrollment drop will surpass $11 million.

Kanawha had the biggest drop this year — 591 students, an accelerated decrease from the 442 drop it saw last school year and the 170 it saw the year before.

Duerring said the county hasn’t developed a plan yet to deal with the issue. He said the resulting funding drop will cause issues, because the student decrease isn’t concentrated at particular schools, meaning the county can’t simply shutter parts of buildings, lay off teachers or cancel bus routes.

“We have fixed costs,” said Lisa Wilcox, the school system’s treasurer. “We have a set number of buildings that we have to fund for utilities and custodial and those sorts of things. That doesn’t change immediately because we had a drop in students.

”When asked about possible school consolidations, Duerring said he doesn’t think such a “drastic” move is needed, noting that, in roughly the past two decades that he’s been superintendent, the county has already closed 30 schools.

Kanawha’s five-year loss of 1,084 pupils also is the biggest half-decade drop among the counties, although its 27,345 students keep it the largest school system in the state, by a long shot.

However, the second largest, Berkeley County, currently at 18,877 students, is moving in the opposite direction. It has added 875 students over the past five years, including another 209 this school year — the biggest one- and five-year gains among all the counties. Last school year alone, it added 447 pupils.

“I actually thought the number this school year would be a little higher,” said Berkeley schools Superintendent Manny Arvon.

He said he’s seen a 7,000-student jump in his Eastern Panhandle county over 20 years, an increase larger than the total enrollment in each of 43 counties.

Even looking at percentages instead of raw numbers, Berkeley’s 4.9 percent gain over the past five years ranks it third in the state, beaten only by two much smaller counties: Wirt, which has seen a 7.2 percent gain, to now have 1,072 pupils, and Hardy, which has seen a 5 percent gain, to now have 2,393.

By contrast, Kanawha has seen a 3.8 percent drop over the last half-decade, the highest percentage decrease of the seven counties with over 10,000 enrolled, and the 21st-highest percentage decrease overall.

Berkeley is home to many people who work in the Washington, D.C., and Baltimore, Maryland, areas, Arvon said. In the past few years, it’s also seen the opening of a Macy’s distribution center, and Procter & Gamble is constructing a 4.3-million-square-foot manufacturing facility there.

Arvon said increasing enrollment has its own issues.

For a time after the national housing market collapsed, he said students were increasing as excess levy property tax revenue was dropping because of lower appraisals of home values.

Although Berkeley has recovered from that “perfect storm,” the superintendent said the county will have to continue building schools and competing for teachers. He said that, while its location has brought economic prosperity, Berkeley must compete for teachers with nearby areas like Hagerstown, Maryland, which has a $44,000 starting salary for teachers, compared to Berkeley’s $36,000.

“We have a recruiting system that would challenge any good Division I school for football,” Arvon said, but he noted that West Virginia teachers’ benefits package is an important draw.

Teachers across the state are concerned about plans to cut Public Employees Insurance Agency state health insurance benefits by more than $120 million.

“Each year, it becomes a little more difficult,” Arvon said