by NATHANIEL NELSON
From day one, Winona Area Public Schools (WAPS) has been at a loss. The first enrollment numbers showed that the district was 96 students under projections for the 2018-2019 school year, and that number has continued to tumble, with the most recent numbers showing a decrease of 154 students, predominantly from Rollingstone and new families with kindergarten-age students. Following the loss, board members called for a survey to figure out what went wrong. At their board meeting next Thursday, members will be briefed on the district’s plans to grapple with the exodus. According to WAPS administrators, only a handful of students from Madison left after its recent closure, but more than 50 percent of Rollingstone students migrated out of District 861. The loss will impact this year and future budgets with most school funding doled out on a per-pupil basis. In planning and budgeting for this school year, WAPS administrators anticipated a loss of just six students. Last spring, after the votes to close Madison and Rollingstone, reports began to surface that — at least in Rollingstone — families would migrate from the district if its school were shuttered. Even as a Rollingstone survey was presented that suggested the bulk of students and their siblings would leave, WAPS administrators say they couldn’t predict that the closure would mean families would abandon the district.
“Do we identify additional cuts we should make based on a guess that there would be some students who choose to leave?” WAPS Superintendent Rich Dahman said in an interview.
Why they left
When it was announced in May that Rollingstone Community School (RCS) would be shuttered and banned from becoming a charter school, Rollingstone parent Dana Bruemmer was shocked. She couldn’t understand why the district would close its newest school, despite news from Rollingstone about the upcoming migration.
“I just felt like most of the [board] members had their minds made up going into the decision, and didn’t care about what the community or public had to say about anything,” Bruemmer said.
In light of the closure, Bruemmer transferred her two children to Lewiston-Altura Public Schools, along with eight other students from the city. The consolidation would cause larger class sizes, she explained, and that wasn’t something she wanted for her children.
“There are some kids that can’t handle the bigger class sizes at a young age. They need the smaller, more structured one-on-one time. That’s when they are most influential,” Bruemmer said.
Fellow Rollingstone resident Tiffany Brown moved her two children to a local private school after the Rollingstone charter school plan was dashed. “We still held out hope for it to turn into a charter school, but [WAPS] burned those bridges,” Brown said. “That’s still our hope, hopefully someday [Rollingstone will have a charter].”
Brown explained that Rollingstone was a great school for her children. Her children loved the smaller school atmosphere, and test scores were great, so she said she didn’t understand why they were closing the school down.
“Their reason for shutting us down was just that that’s what they wanted to do. It’s not because we weren’t making the cut,” she stated.
Brown and Bruemmer are two of a much larger number of Rollingstone residents who chose to leave the district following this summer’s school closure. According to Dahman, around 50 percent of the students from RCS’ 69 students transferred out of the district. In reality, that number is a bit higher, with 37 students confirmed to have transferred to neighboring schools according to a Winona Post query earlier this year.
But Rollingstone families only make up a portion of the total loss. Another large hit came from incoming kindergarteners, which amounted to another 37 student loss. The number of anticipated incoming kindergarteners is based on the birth numbers in the district from five year ago and WAPS’ average capture rate for incoming kids, according to WAPS Finance Director Sarah Slaby. This loss suggests that WAPS’ capture rate could be changing for the first time in years. In total, at least 74 students were either pulled from the district by their parents or sent to a different one from day one, though exact numbers will not be known until the district’s expected survey is complete.
Dahman reported to the board that the majority of students who left were those who moved out of state or to the metropolitan area. “It’s not an accurate statement that the students left the district to go to another school or because of closing schools,” Dahman told the board. It was unclear whether he was referring to just the most recent loss of 26 students or the overall hemorrhage of 154.
This year marks the first following the closure of Madison and Rollingstone elementary schools, along with the district’s disbursement of the STEM program at Jefferson, and according to Dahman, the impact of those decisions were not taken into account for enrollment numbers.
“We started the budget process back in November. A big part of setting that number is enrollment projections,” Dahman explained. In those initial projections, Slaby estimated that only six students would be lost in the 2018-2019 year, and budgets were adjusted accordingly.
Once the initial projections were made, the WAPS Board made nearly $1.7 million in budget cuts for the upcoming year to balance the district’s budget and build back a bit of its dwindling reserves, and those cuts included the closure of Madison and Rollingstone.
Following the split vote to close the schools, a committee in Rollingstone approached the board in an effort to put its new charter in the RCS building beginning in the 2020-21 school year. To accomplish this, they asked that the district stop the sale of the schoolhouse and rescind the restriction on its future use as a school. In addition, 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.
Dahman explained that administrators did not see the survey as tangible fact, instead as simply conjecture at the time. With budgets and enrollment projections already set, he said administrators did not examine ways to alter the budget based on a loss of students they weren’t certain would come.
“At that point it wasn’t really data because it was what someone was saying they were hearing from other members of the Rollingstone community,” Dahman said.
But later that summer, as enrollment numbers began rolling in, it became clear that the threat of a mass student exodus was not simply hearsay.
By the time the votes for school closure were cast, District 861 already had its eyes on the fall. It was only three months before the upcoming school year, contracts were signed, and the district was preparing for students to arrive in droves after Labor Day. But in the midst of these preparations, some worrying news began to arise.
“Once the summer got going, we heard more anecdotal evidence of families leaving,” Dahman said.
As the numbers began to roll in, WAPS leaders began to realize the district was bleeding students, but at that point, little could be done about the budget and staffing — everything was finalized before the school closure vote was made. According to Minnesota law, districts have until April 1 to terminate or reduce a continuing contract with a teacher, and that date had already long passed.
Dahman explained that while the district could have reduced its kindergarten staffing by one teacher in March, in anticipation of a smaller kindergarten class, the choice could have led to either larger class sizes or a last-minute hire. Even with the staffing issue, Dahman said the district did what it could to prepare for the impending migration.
“Over the summer we looked at ways to limit expenses as much as possible,” Dahman said. However, the one option that wasn’t on the table was additional budget cuts. The district had just finished a round of cuts totaling $1.7 million, so returning to the table to cut more without a concrete number of lost students was not a viable option, Dahman said.
“At that point, we had a decision [to make]: do we identify additional cuts we should make based on a guess that there would be some students who choose to leave? I don’t think that would’ve been a justifiable decision,” Dahman explained, adding that the district still needed to prepare for the families that remained.
According to Slaby, enrollment projections are made based on two formulas. The first, for incoming kindergarteners, is based on birth rates in the district multiplied by WAPS’ average capture rate for the kids. For the other grades, the district analyzes five-to-10-year trend data that calculates how many students typically migrate to and from the district in each grade. These formulas have been the same for roughly eight years, and in the past have been fairly reliable; WAPS’ estimates were only seven students off in the year before.
“Prior to this year, we had a bit of a stabling,” Slaby said of the long-term trend of declining enrollment, so for the upcoming year, a net loss of six students was written into the budget.
There were no changes to account for school closure, because the votes were cast after projections were made and the budget was set, but Dahman admitted that there were no studies into how the shuttering might affect enrollment.
The slash in enrollment will have lasting effects on the school’s budget. Each student brings in an average of $9,422.30 in per-pupil funding split between funding between the state and the local levy. Taxes for this year have already been collected, so the impact for this year comes from state funding; an estimated $813,603.98, offset by an additional $285,729.09 in one-time revenue from the state for districts with large declines in enrollment. Slaby explained that the funding loss will be offset by other revenue sources, including a $350,000 grant for special education, an overbudget of $136,000 for medical insurance, and $289,000 in revenue that is either unbudgeted or set to enter the fund reserve.
Slaby reported that funding formulas for next year could increase, so she hesitated to gauge how deep a loss WAPS will have to take. However, the district is already anticipating a need to reduce next year’s budget by between $1 million and $1.5 million to reach a balanced budget, and any additional loss due to declining enrollment will only add to that figure.
Any raises granted to the teachers’ union will also have to come from somewhere. In the past, contract settlements have often landed within the $1-million range, but this year, the district only budgeted for a step increase, totaling $388,000, instead of any other additional growth in teacher salaries. The contract negotiations recently entered mediation after the two groups failed to reach a contract agreement, and with the decision looming, it may have an even heavier impact on the district’s budgeting. The principals’ union must also settle a new contract.
“If we can’t find enough savings within the 2019 budget, we will have to have a conversation about whether going into the fund balance is something we’d have to do to settle the teacher contract,” Slaby said. Slaby estimated that the district will have approximately $1.7 million left in its reserves at the end of the fiscal year.
News of WAPS’ financial woes in recent years reached the desks of officials at Standard & Poors (S&P), which last year downgraded the district’s credit rating by a peg. It also cast a “negative” outlook, based on the district’s “deteriorated financial position,” it’s declines in fund balance in recent years, and a “lack of plans to correct [its] fiscal imbalance.” S&P stated that WAPS had a one-in-three chance that S&P would lower the rating again if WAPS continued to draw down on its reserve funds. “However, if the district were to appropriately reduce expenditures to be in line with revenue, then we could possibly revise the outlook back to stable.”
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