BEDFORD — Enrollment in North Lawrence Community Schools has been slowly declining for years.
The same downward trend has also affected Mitchell Community Schools.
Loss of employment opportunities, a shrinking population and students transferring in and out of a district or withdrawing to enroll in online schools all contribute to the loss.
Each September, the Indiana Department of Education conducts a student count called the Average Daily Membership. The number of students counted that day is used to determine school funding for the following budget year.
Gary Conner, NLCS superintendent, said the corporation, on average, loses about 40 students per year, but this year, the loss was much greater and that is presenting tough financial challenges for NLCS.
NL enrollment dropped 174 students from one year ago when the IDOE conducted its ADM Sept. 15.
NLCS receives $5,942.58 from the state in per pupil funding, which equates to a loss of $1,035,732 in funding for the next budget year.
Conner is adamant that the loss, although significant, will not result in the downsizing of faculty.
“I will not RIF,” said Conner, referring to a reduction in force. “When a school has to RIF, it cuts deep and the scars never heal. If you are a member of our staff and perform at a level that provides service and care to our students, we won’t compromise that.”
Conner said NLCS has sufficient reserves in other funds, such as the Rainy Day Fund, to cover the loss in state funding and will reduce spending in ways that won’t affect student services, but with no indication that the loss of students won’t continue, the corporation will be challenged by continued, deeper funding cuts.
Cuts can be made here and there, but the number of buildings a corporation maintains and their associated costs, for the most part, are fixed.
“Even though the annual operating budget for NLCS is continuing to experience a rather significant diminishing annual revenue flow because of decreasing enrollments, NLCS is maintaining the same number of cost centers within the corporation with either the same or increased operating costs,” Conner said. “Since 2006, we have maintained the same critical costs, even though the annual revenue flow is continuing to decrease.”
While the per pupil student funding from the state is $5,942.58, the total per pupil revenue for 2017-18 is $6,879.93 when including revenue from other sources such as book rental.
MCS recorded a loss of 34 students during the ADM as total enrollment dropped from 1,585 to 1,551 in the past year. MCS receives $6,138.01 in per pupil funding, for a loss of revenue totaling $208,692.34.
“Overcoming the loss of revenue realized by the decline in ADM has been challenging,” said Dr. Steve Phillips, MCS superintendent, in an email. “The year-by-year decline in revenue as a result of our ADM forces me to become more conservative in making financial, budgetary decisions. Along with benefit to students, staffing, compensation, staff health benefits and expenditures as considerations, it has been my desire to place MCS in a sound financial position for the future.”
In MCS over the past nine years, enrollment has decreased by 393 students from 1,944 in 2010-11 on the September ADM, to 1,551 recorded on the ADM this year.
That is an average of 43.66 students/year average over the past nine years, said Phillips.
Using the present funding per student of $6,138.01 at 393 students for the past nine years, funding has declined approximately $2,412,237.90.
Phillips noted that figure may be higher than the actual loss of funding because the per pupil funding has increased over time.
Causes of declining enrollment are a combination of factors, some of them out of a school corporation’s control.
“A school corporation’s geographical location makes a difference,” Phillips said. “While there are advantages to attending a smaller high school, it is difficult for a high school the enrollment size of Mitchell High School to offer the different courses a larger school can offer.”
Other factors, such as an aging population, means fewer families with school-age children living in a school district. Some families may choose to home school. Another factor is the transient nature of today’s student population.
“At Mitchell High School alone, approximately 25 percent of our students either enrolled or withdrew from school during the 2017-2018 school year,” he said.
Tracking the trend
The loss of 174 students didn’t come as a shock to Conner, even though it was four times greater than in years past. He said he and Corbin Dietrich, NLCS chief financial officer, have tracked enrollment declines over the past decade and have projected forward to the year 2026 to anticipate and prepare for enrollment dips.
From 2006-18, NLCS enrollment dropped by 589 students. Projecting forward from 2018-26, NLCS expects enrollment to drop by about 226 students. Conner said he and Dietrich will use that data to guide their budgeting and decision-making.
NLCS remains solvent and Conner gave credit to Dietrich, who is a CPA and has a master’s degree in accounting, for her expertise with school budgets.
Conner said the school board is aware of the corporation finances and is focused on doing the best for students and staff. But the bottom line, he said, is the corporation must learn to do more with less.
“We want to compensate teachers and staff as much as possible … without question,” said Conner. “However, the working dilemma that we are continuing to embrace is being able to secure and maintain a constant funding source that supports wages and salaries on an annual basis.
“If you increase wages and if you are unable to use a funding source that is annually renewable, you develop an unstable operating platform that is an incubator for the instability of budget solvency.”