Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

Enrollment gap raises questions about school plan

School district faces significant enrollment shortfall in the north based on projections developed by JCI

Marshall Helmberger
Posted 4/15/10

If they build it, will they come?

That’s the question that will likely decide the future success or failure of the St. Louis County School District’s restructuring plan. Particularly in the …

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Enrollment gap raises questions about school plan

School district faces significant enrollment shortfall in the north based on projections developed by JCI

Posted

If they build it, will they come?

That’s the question that will likely decide the future success or failure of the St. Louis County School District’s restructuring plan. Particularly in the north, the school district’s plan to build a new school five miles north of Cook and to convert the Tower-Soudan School to an elementary only has sparked widespread opposition.

School officials maintain that a worsening budget picture makes some school consolidation essential, but critics have questioned whether those savings could be undermined if too many parents opt to send their students to neighboring districts.

Adding to those doubts is the continuing slide in enrollment, particularly at Cook, where the permanent shutdown of the Ainsworth Lumber mill last year has pushed enrollment figures sharply lower. As of April, 351 students were enrolled at Cook, down more than 12 percent from the 400 students who attended there just two years ago.

The latest enrollment numbers fall far short of the projections developed for the school district by its consultant Johnson Controls as part of its restructuring plan. Should the planned closure of schools in Cook and Orr, and the high school in Tower, lead to further losses due to open enrollment— as appears likely— it raises questions about the viability of the school district’s financial turnaround.

Such concerns prompted local legislators to ask school officials to conduct an independent survey of residents in the north half of the district in hopes of determining likely enrollment following implementation of their restructuring plan.

“We view it as a huge mistake and a poor investment of public funds to continue with the northern plans (Tower/Orr/Cook) without some assurances that the student enrollment will support the new and renovated facilities,” stated Sen. Tom Bakk and Rep. David Dill in a letter to the board in January.

Despite the request from the local DFL lawmakers, school officials have declined to conduct such a survey. Superintendent Charles Rick said the district constantly updates its enrollment projections and is confident of its accuracy.

Enrollments likely well short of projections

In developing its restructuring plan, school officials and Johnson Controls’ representatives focused much of their attention, and political arguments, on the potential savings from their school consolidation plan. But the other side of the equation— revenue— got much less attention.

And since revenue for school districts is based largely on enrollment, the accuracy of enrollment projections is critical to judging the likely success of any restructuring.

And that should be cause for concern, particularly given enrollment projections for the three northern schools (Tower, Cook, and Orr).

While Johnson Controls representatives have repeatedly described their enrollment projections as “conservative,” on their face they appear overly optimistic. For example, Johnson Controls’ projected a total of 630 students would attend the New North School, near Cook, which would consolidate students from the Orr and Cook schools into one facility beginning with the 2011-12 school year. Yet enrollment for Orr and Cook combined amounts to just 570 as of this week, or sixty fewer students than projected by Johnson Controls last year.

At the same time, Johnson Controls’ representatives had predicted 150 students would attend the new elementary school in Tower as of 2011-12. Yet just 114 students currently attend the elementary in Tower, a difference of more than 20 percent. With each student bringing an average of about $10,000 to the district, the district is already facing a revenue shortfall of $1 million just based on current enrollment.

And there’s reason to believe that the shortfalls could be much higher. For one, the projected enrollment number at the New North School includes about 60 students from Nett Lake, who currently attend high school in Orr. The Bois Forte Band has given no official word on whether or not they plan to send their students to the new school. Currently, the Band is under obligation not to build its own high school, provided a high school is available in Orr. The planned closure of the Orr School would eliminate that commitment, although band members have mixed opinions about whether or not to pursue construction of their own school.

St. Louis County School District officials say they are reasonably confident that Nett Lake students will attend the new school, at least initially. “As I plan ahead, I’m looking at Nett Lake being part of it at first,” said Rick.

While uncertainty over Nett Lake’s students is one concern, the district is already facing a substantial enrollment shortfall at the New North School, even if all the Nett Lake students decide to attend school there. Combined with the likely shortfall at the planned Tower-Soudan elementary, the school district can expect at least 100 fewer students than projected for the two sites even if open enrollment losses are kept to a minimum.

Open enrollment could further drain resources

The wild card in the district’s plan is open enrollment. While Johnson Controls’ representatives initially told school officials the construction of new schools would likely attract additional students, those hopes have been tempered more recently, particularly in the north, where public anger over the restructuring plan is significant.

The district’s planned closure of the Tower-Soudan High School puts about 105 students up for grabs. While St. Louis County School officials expect most will remain in the district, that’s uncertain. Officially, the district plans to bus most of the TS students 26 miles to Babbitt, but most area residents don’t believe many students will ultimately attend there.

Neighboring school districts are already seeing potential gains from the planned closure of Tower’s high school. Ely, which is located 20 miles from Soudan, sent a promotional mailing to the Tower-Soudan area earlier this year and the Virginia School District has begun advertising its plans to send buses to Tower as well as the Vermilion Social Center, on the Vermilion Reservation, starting this fall. Currently, the Virginia School District sends a bus no further than the Y Store, located at the junction of County Road 77 and Hwy. 169.

Virginia School Superintendent Chuck Futterer said he has had some additional calls from Tower area parents in recent weeks, but said it has not been “a huge influx” as of yet. “That’s why we put the information in the paper,” he said. It’s unclear how many students from Tower-Soudan would opt to leave this fall, since the high school is still scheduled to operate through the 2010-11 school year.

But Futterer has his sights set on Cook as well. “On the Cook side, we have had a number of calls,” he said. That has prompted the Virginia School Board to approve sending a bus to Cook this fall. Currently, the Virginia bus turns around at the Laurentian Environmental Center in Britt, so the route extension to Cook is a significant one. “We had originally planned to send a Suburban, but a bus is looking viable now,” said Futterer.

For the St. Louis County School District, the restructuring plan is essentially a roll of the dice. “Where the enrollment is going post-restructuring is up in the air,” acknowledged Rick, who said it now appears that student numbers won’t be as high in the north as the district had previously hoped.

Even so, district officials are betting that the savings they believe they can achieve from school consolidation will more than offset lost revenue from fewer students. But with enrollment projections already running nearly 100 students short between Tower, Cook, and Orr— and with the prospect of losing many dozens more to open enrollment, there’s plenty of room for doubt. “We’re concerned about the loss of enrollment,” said Rick. “That could erode the savings.”

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Contact your legislators folks! We are going to be paying for (what I have heard) 75% of the cost of education in Cherry, AlBrook, and Cotton. The northern 1/2 of the district will likely send a large % of their students to Virginia. This entire fiasco is a boondoggle!! I don't even know, or care where AlBrook is, but I will be paying for their children's education for 20 years? Johnson Controls doing the evaluations was like the fox guarding the hen house. The school board was not acting in the best interest of all of the children, it was a money grab. I wonder what the average household in Cherry is paying for the "plan". I hope to heck the legislator finds enough "funny business" to make the vote invalid.

Friday, April 16, 2010