Demographic dilemmas

Demographic dilemmas

Demographic Dilemmas

Schools across the state are facing population loss
Kentucky School Advocate
October 2015
By Madelynn Coldiron
Staff writer 
Belt-tightening has been the byword in Kentucky school districts for many years, but for school systems in counties that are losing population, it may seem like they are running out of notches.

"We save every penny we can," said Harlan County Schools Superintendent Mike Howard. "I tell them all, ‘Every dollar you save, the job you save might be yours.’"

Enrollment this year in Harlan County Schools, hovering just over 4,000, is down only slightly, which, said Howard, "is really good in the scheme of things."

"We’ve been losing students over the years," he said, some years worse than others. A few years ago, the district suffered a drop of nearly 200 students – "that was the year all of our mines shut down and we had people leave for work." Howard said last year the county lost $100 million in property assessments on coal, and it lost 11.3 percent of its population between 2000 and 2010.
The situation is similar in neighboring Leslie County, where Superintendent Anthony Little said the district has downsized its staff through attrition and consolidation of central office duties among fewer people.

"If we can get leaner at our central office we try to do that rather than affect the people who are providing direct instruction to our children," he said.

Little said the district’s cost-cutting includes increasing efficiencies in pupil transportation and energy use. He said he’s trying to make the latter more meaningful by expressing the savings in terms of teaching positions.

Floyd County school board Chairman Jeff Stumbo said it’s important to dig a little deeper into the demographics in this situation.

"One of the things we do if we’re losing population at one or more of our schools is we look at where the kids are going – why they left, why they’re moving away," said Stumbo, who also sits on the KSBA Board of Directors. "We do a great job of tracking students."

Floyd County Superintendent Henry Webb ticks off a list of economizing steps the district has taken in response to the loss of students over the past five years. They range from putting Head Start kids on regular buses with trained student mentors to using fuel cards instead of district fuel tanks. A high school consolidation also will produce savings.

"We have an essential question that we ask people to think about and it’s ‘How has the use of the resource improved student learning in a measurable way over time?’ And we ask people, if something’s not working, get rid of it; we don’t need to spend money on it," Webb said.

The size factor
The financial impact of enrollment loss is not easy on a small district, Harlan Independent Superintendent Charles Morton said. The district has gone from 846 pupils in 2009-10 to 715 this year.

The drop has forced staff reductions, but the district also is looking for ways to save smaller amounts of money, which can add up, he said.

"For us, if we can do three or four or maybe five things that save us $1,500, $2,000, now all of a sudden we have a teacher’s aide back," Morton said.

But he said he personally believes the high-performing Harlan Independent district’s role is to represent hope in that economically stressed area.

"In spite of parents losing jobs and dads having to drive away to work for a week and come back on the weekend, I think we’ve got a calling here to help support our families and our students and to kind of communicate to them that despite what’s going on in your personal life, at home and your family, school is a place where we believe you can continue to do things that everybody can be proud of."

Factors felt statewide?
Leslie County’s Little said he worries about future demographic trends. "It’s an aging population, too," he said, adding that the number of school-age children is shrinking due to a combination of outmigration and families having fewer kids.

The upshot is less property tax revenue, less community involvement in the schools and a dive in local property values with the mine closures, said Howard, of Harlan County. That complicates the picture when the school board sets its tax rate.

"Even for us to do the compensating rate, the rate picks up considerably because of decreased assessments," he said.

Ron Crouch, director of Research and Statistics in the state Office of Employment and Training, said what Leslie County is seeing now soon will be felt to some degree across the state, particularly in rural areas with increased outmigration and declining birthrate.

"We’re about to see a major decline in population growth in our counties, and that’s because in the next 10 to 20 years, the raw death numbers are about to skyrocket," he said. "Baby boomers who are now in their 50s and 60s over the next 10-20 years are going to be moving into their 70s and 80s, when they have a much higher mortality rate. And the baby boom population is double the population now of people in their 70s and 80s."

Crouch said the good news for eastern Kentucky is that with the aging population, the health-care and scientific/professional services sectors there are expected to generate jobs. "So outmigration could slow down and you could have a stable population in eastern Kentucky," he said.

He added for school districts, this means making sure students are ready for those jobs. Workforce is the key, Floyd County’s Webb agreed, "so we’ve got to do a better job of preparing them now more than ever."
Far western Kentucky also losing population
It’s not just eastern Kentucky school districts that are being affected by county population losses. Hickman County in far western Kentucky saw a 6.6 percent drop from 2000-2010, for example, while Fulton County lost 11.5 percent of its population during that period.

Fulton County school district’s enrollment has stabilized in recent years, but Superintendent Aaron Collins, now in his third year at the helm, said when he arrived the district was operating as if the population hadn’t changed.

While the district had cut one of its two guidance counselor positions just before he arrived, under his watch, the posts of district curriculum/instruction chief and pupil personnel director have been combined; an assistant principal post has been cut and replaced with a classified school administrative manager who also oversees an alternative program; and the special education director’s position has been trimmed to part time.

"No one has one hat," Collins said.
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