What goes through the mind of a school district superintendent in Iowa every time he or she sees a moving truck?
With state education funding largely tied to a district’s enrollment numbers, the mere sight of a U-Haul likely triggers all types of thoughts. Those same thoughts are magnified in rural regions in Iowa that have experienced decades of population declines. It may seem like a foregone conclusion that many districts will continue to see their enrollments slip sliding away, which leads to stagnant funding and more belt-tightening.
There always is an exception to the rule, however. There is one area school district that is defying the trend of declining enrollments in a big way.
Northeast Community School District is filled to capacity this school year.
“I just feel like we’re really, really full,” Superintendent Neil Gray said at a recent school board meeting. “I don’t know if there’s a limit to what we can physically deal with.”
As classes resumed in late August, the district estimated that its enrollment had surpassed 900 for the first time. Officials counted 916 students at the time. The state still is reviewing the enrollment numbers, but that preliminary count would mean a jump of 89 additional students from a year ago.
A few years ago, when the enrollment at Northeast was waning, the school board made a conscious decision to accept more open-enrollment applicants.
“I think we’re doing a tremendous job with our resources, with the kids we have,” Gray said. “I think, ‘Hats off to everyone.’ We do a great job of making kids feel like this is their home for school and they are successful here or their parents want them here. We don’t want to lose sight of that.”
While it may seem like a no-brainer to try to boost the number of students through open enrollment to boost state funding, it’s also a classic example of, “Be careful of what you wish for.”
The Northeast school board entered into that strategy with eyes wide open. There are legitimate reasons to stop short of rolling out the red carpet.
First of all, while each student who has an established residence in the district draws “full funding,” the state pays significantly less for open-enrolled students.
That’s not a small consideration for Northeast, which counted — unofficially — 368 open-enrolled students prior to the resumption of classes in August. That’s a whopping 40 percent of the entire student population.
Outside of a handful of other districts, very few are composed of anywhere near that kind of percentage. In the vast majority of districts, the number of open-enrollees is less than 10 percent.
“If we get $2,000 less for each student because of open enrollment than if they live in the district, that adds up to well over $500,000 that, by the nature of the system, does not come with open-enrolled students,” Gray. “If we thought out loud, it would be: ‘What could we do with an extra $500,000 to $700,000 per year?’ So, if you ever have your legislator cornered and want to make that comment.”
The second pitfall for a district accepting a high number of open-enrollments is that there inevitably will be a strain on resources. This strain is particularly acute when it comes to special-education resources.
Gray believes the district has arrived at a point in which it no longer can afford to blindly accept open-enrollment applications. He discussed a few recent applications that were denied.
“We declined them because either there is no good reason to meet their criteria on the form or we don’t have space for them,” he said. “We probably have space for general-ed students, but we do not have space for high-need, special-education students across the board.
“Their paperwork was in line, but we just can’t accommodate their needs right now,” he continued. “Some of the cases involve families who are basically homeless at this time. That’s a heartbreaking conversation to have.”
Now that the school is filled to capacity, the board is debating about how to start the conversation about the space crunch.
The current school was built in 1997, and the bond measure did not pass on the first referendum. Although the district isn’t attempting to build a new school, the board can’t be sure whether the community has the appetite to consider a possible expansion.
The district has an outstanding $5.8 million loan that is on pace to be paid off in 2033, but it also will retire three other loans within the next few years.
“I’m going to come up with some kind of community input survey,” Gray said. “We can show the writing is on the wall for some of our bonds, and we will be able to do some things.”