Large student migration means unbudgeted blow to district’s bottom line
by SARAH SQUIRES
The numbers are in, and Winona Area Public Schools’ (WAPS) enrollment is down by nearly 1,600 percent more than the district planned — and budgeted for — this school year. WAPS Director of Finance Sarah Slaby broke the news to the board on Thursday, explaining that the 96 students under enrollment projections was offset by an unexpected 47-student increase in 12th grade. For seniors, the district is required to count even those who may have left until they are absent for 15 school days; among this year’s senior class, Slaby stated around nine are expected to be cut at that time.
Calculating the loss in funding is complex, and the state will kick in an extra $162,000 in revenue granted to districts that experience such a steep loss in students. Even with that extra money, Slaby’s initial estimates peg WAPS at $462,000 under budget due to the enrollment loss — just in general education revenue. The average total per pupil funding for last year was $9,174 per student; calculating that with the added state enrollment loss funding would put the district at $718,704 in the red.
Where did all the kids go, wondered some board members. WAPS Superintendent Rich Dahman said district staff are in the process of calling families to find out why they left and where they have sent their children, but just flipping back to board meetings earlier this summer shows at least in part how the district ended up severing ties with a large portion of its lost families.
Following the painful closure of Madison and Rollingstone elementary schools, a committee in Rollingstone has been pursuing the creation of a charter school there. Earlier this summer, the group approached the board in an effort to put its new charter in the Rollingstone schoolhouse beginning in the 2020-21 school year; they asked that the district not sell the building with a restriction on its future use as a school. Along with its charter school proposal, the group presented a survey of all Rollingstone area families that showed that the bulk would leave the district without the promise of a school there: 46 current students along with their 23 siblings.
But the board did not budge on its move to sell the school with the restriction that it not be used in the future as a schoolhouse, and when administrators put together this year’s budget, the threat of a mass migration of students seemed to fall on deaf ears — WAPS budgeted for a net loss of just over six students for this school year.
Last month the Winona Post queried neighboring districts, Winona Area Catholic Schools, and charter options and found that at least 37 Rollingstone area students had indeed enrolled in other systems.
It is unclear whether Madison area families also chose to enroll their children in other schools following its closure, though the WAPS Board is expected to be briefed on where migrating families went in the coming weeks.
Slaby told the board on Thursday that the formula used to calculate WAPS’ enrollment was the same that has been used for the last eight years, and that in the past it has worked well. “There are obviously some other things going on that we need to deal with within our system,” she told the board.
Dahman shared updated class size numbers with the board as well. With the student loss at the elementary level, some class sizes that were expected to be larger than desired had dropped, and all now fall well below the target range, he said. “While that’s great, educationally, it does put us in a bind financially,” Dahman stated.
The enrollment drop also pegs WAPS down in size when compared to other Big 9 schools. Dahman said that based on enrollment in other Big 9 schools from last year, WAPS’ decline would mean the district is now smaller than Albert Lea, making District 861 the second smallest district and just above Red Wing.
Board member Allison Quam added an agenda item to Thursday’s meeting for the discussion of a slew of complaints about the district’s busing system.
Along with the closure of Madison and Rollingstone schools, other changes meant that hundreds of students were moved to a new school as well. Just over 400 students remain at their prior school building, while previous estimates (prior to the loss in enrollment) showed 386 students switching elementary schools this year. Students were also moved from school to school because the Spanish immersion program — which included students from attendance boundaries district-wide — was moved from Madison to Jefferson. Additionally, the STEM program at Jefferson that previously also attracted students district-wide has now been disbanded, with STEM being launched at all buildings; thus the students who formerly attended STEM at Jefferson have been redistricted to their home school.
All those changes in school assignments meant big changes for the district’s transportation system, as well. The former transportation coordinator also resigned this summer, and her replacement took the job just a few weeks before school began.
Quam told the board that she had heard lots of concerns from parents who said their child is now on the bus for an hour and a half each way. The earliest bus stops, she said, pick up elementary students at 6:09 a.m. from the Rollingstone area. Those students then ride to Goodview school, where another bus takes them starting at 7:18 a.m., and then they make their way to their new schoolhouse. Quam also stated that some parents were told that their child had to walk to school because they lived within one mile of the building, even though they had to cross railroad tracks to get there — which is against district policy. She said the district needed to look at consolidating bus stops so that ride times could be reduced, and that though the district is undertaking a comprehensive bus study this year, she said that undertaking should have been done before the decision to close schools and displace so many students.
Dahman told the board that the busing issue is complex. Though one family may desire fewer bus stops for a shorter bus ride, others wanted more so that their children don’t have to walk as far to their stop. Those conflicting desires have to be weighed for the most efficient and safe system, he stated, adding that students who live in the most outlying parts of the district have to be picked up earlier to get to school on time. “If individuals have ideas on how to do that more efficiently, we would love to hear those ideas,” he said.
“I understand, but I don’t think we, as a school district or board, thought about that before we closed these schools,” replied board member Tina Lehnertz. “Some of these kids were on a bus for a half hour or 45 minutes before they got to Rollingstone [before it was closed], and I don’t think we thought about that. That’s a long ride for a kindergartener.”
Quam said she wanted to know the cost per route, how many students are served by each route, and how many stops each route includes. She said that in order for people to give ideas about improving the system, they need to have more information about how it works.
“The board table isn’t the place to work on management of the schools,” replied Dahman. “We hire transportation coordinators to do that job — they work really hard at that job. We bring information to the board so the board can have oversight in those areas.” He said the new transportation coordinator has been working hard, working nights and weekends, in order to work out the kinks in the system.
“As a board member, the only place we can talk about things as a group is right here, so I value very much conversations like this,” stated board member Jay Kohner, adding he was glad that Quam had brought the issue to the board.
Dahman said it wasn’t efficient for concerns to be brought to the board, then to the board table to be brought to the attention of administrators — concerns should be brought to the district staff person who is in charge of that area. Micromanaging, he said, is when a board member pulls out a map and starts trying to change routes.
“Our role is to monitor what is going on,” said Quam, adding that she had heard many complaints and concerns about the bus system. “That is not micromanaging. Even mentioning [the need for] this data is not micromanaging … [I’m] trying to work through a problem to solve together. I know that we have a clear disagreement about that.”
“I don’t know that we do,” Dahman said, reiterating his example of micromanaging as board members changing routes during a board meeting. “You seem to be putting words in my mouth for some reason and I don’t appreciate that, to tell you the truth.” He continued, “I think the board’s discussion and questions are valuable and an important part of the board’s work, so I think maybe we are in agreement of that.”
Keep reading the Winona Post for more on this story.