Sponsored By
An organization or individual has paid for the creation of this work but did not approve or review it.

ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

Fading numbers

The Grand Forks community is feeling the school district's declining enrollment trend, with Wilder Elementary School transferring its mere eight kindergarten students to Winship Elementary this year.

The Grand Forks community is feeling the school district's declining enrollment trend, with Wilder Elementary School transferring its mere eight kindergarten students to Winship Elementary this year.

January enrollment in Grand Forks Public Schools is down to 7,100, about 150 fewer students than last January and 280 fewer than the year before. Wilder falls well below the district's school size guidelines this year, with 76 students in January, half the minimum guideline of 150 for elementary schools.

"Families are not having as many kids anymore," Interim Superintendent Ron Gruwell said. "Population goes up and enrollment goes down."

But the problem is not a new one and possible solutions the district may have to explore to curb it aren't new either.

Enrollment in the district has declined every school year since 1995-96, when August enrollment was more than 9,900. Decreases were small some years and significant others.

ADVERTISEMENT

Enrollment dropped almost 500 students after the flood in the 1996-97 school year, from about 9,750 to 9,270, according to the district's August enrollment numbers. The district lost another near 500 students the next year and enrollment has continued to decline. Officials expect a headcount of about 7,190 this August, a decrease of about 130 from last August.

Estimates show that the population in Grand Forks has been at a steady increase, despite declining enrollment in the school district. The labor force also is rising, indicating that the problem may not lie in an aging population alone.

The district's School size guidelines say elementary schools should have between 150 and 500 students, middle schools in the district should have between 200 and 750 students and high schools should have between 400 and 1,000. District administrators say these numbers are informal, however, and do not strictly control enrollment in the schools. While some schools fall below them, both Red River and Central high schools are above.

Gruwell also attributes the decrease to drawdown of squadrons on the base. School Board President Mike St. Onge agreed, saying it's difficult to plan for them, as notice can be short and the timeline is unknown, sometimes even to base officials.

"That is one of our biggest uncertainties," St. Onge said. "Those can affect up to 1,000 students. This is ongoing and is something the new superintendent and the board will continue to address."

Many school districts in North Dakota and Minnesota are seeing steady enrollment declines. February enrollment in East Grand Forks was 1,719, the lowest February figure since at least the early 1980s.

"We've been at a steady decline for at least the past 12 years," said Jerry Coleman, with North Dakota Department of Public Instruction, of statewide school district enrollment. "Really large high school classes are graduating and the ones coming in are smaller, so we've been riding this decline."

Statewide enrollment issues are because of outmigration and the fact that families are just smaller than they used to be, Coleman suspected. North Dakota schools lost about 1,500 students last year and it looks like the trend will continue.

ADVERTISEMENT

"Looking at the next five years, it would be a certainty," he said of a continuing decline.

How to cope

Rumors of Wilder closing because of low enrollment figures drew concerned parents, teachers and community members to the Grand Forks School Board Forum in January. Forum discussions and proposed solutions eased their fears, according to Pam Carlson, Wilder principal intern.

Since most participants agreed schools should not be closed, they brought up ideas such as consolidation and redistricting to curb the dwindling enrollment problem. Some participants, though, were in favor of closing a school if enrollment continues to drop.

The district would save an average of about $350,000 by closing any one of its schools, according to Dean Kreitinger, business manager for Grand Forks Public Schools.

"Most of that savings would be from fewer employees," he said.

Figures for alternative options are hard to estimate, Kreitinger said. Closing a school definitely would save the district the most money, although the board has made it clear that other measures will be explored first, if need be.

If a school closes, students will have to be reassigned to other school buildings at a cost to parents, as the district does not provide a bussing service. Redistricting and consolidation also would direct students to different schools with costs incurred primarily by parents. The measures would include redrawing school boundaries and spreading students out more among the schools.

ADVERTISEMENT

"They could be done together," St. Onge said of redistricting and consolidation. "We would look at our options and hold a public forum to get input from the affected population before making any decisions."

Cost per student in the district for the 2006-07 school year was $8,245. It has been rising every year as class sizes become smaller and enrollment decreases. Cost per pupil is not determined by which school a student attends, but by dividing the entire district cost by the total number of students, Kreitinger said. Savings the district incurs probably would decrease that figure, but students changing schools within the district would not.

The Grand Forks school district is comprised of 20 schools, including two high schools, an alternative high school, four middle schools, 12 elementary schools and a Head Start program. The district is staffed through attrition, meaning fewer students, fewer staff. Because more teachers are opting for early retirement, the school board has been able to match students to teachers without lay offs.

"I don't think it's that we've been lucky," St. Onge said. "We've been planning ahead."

"We've been doing that for years and we will continue to do it as long as we can," Gruwell said of staffing through attrition. "We'll be fine as long as we can do that."

But if the time comes when the district needs to make more changes to adapt to smaller enrollment numbers, the board will have to make a ^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^decision. Wilder and the other north-end elementary schools seem to be the target of concern among people who fear closings.

"I'm not sure when the board will have to address the north-end schools," Gruwell said. "It could be five years from now."

"There are many things we can look at before closing schools," St. Onge said, citing comments from the forum. "One of the things that was made clear was that neighborhood schools are a good thing."

Redrawing the school boundaries to up enrollment at certain schools seemed to be the favorite solution of many groups at the forum. If enrollment continues to decline, it may be an option the board will have to explore, but predicting enrollment trends is difficult.

"We can only take things as they come," St. Onge stated. "But there are a variety of things we would rather do than close a school."

Reach Gibson at (701) 787-6754 or (800) 477-6572, ext. 754, or lgibson@gfherald.com .

What To Read Next
Artificial intelligence can now act as an artist or a writer. Does that mean AI is ready to play doctor? Many institutions, including Mayo Clinic, believe that AI is ready to become a useful tool.
Josh Sipes was watching an in-flight movie when he became aware the flight crew were asking for help assisting a woman who was experiencing a medical problem.
Nonprofit hospitals are required to provide free or discounted care, also known as charity care; yet eligibility and application requirements vary across hospitals. Could you qualify? We found out.
Crisis pregnancy centers received almost $3 million in taxpayer funds in 2022. Soon, sharing only medically accurate information could be a prerequisite for funding.