Budget was based on enrollment of 1,180 students, current number approaching 1,150 after starting year with enrollment of 1,192

    After an encouraging start to the 2017-18 school year that saw 12 more students than the 1,180 projected in Crookston’s three public school buildings on the first day of classes, that opening day enrollment of 1,192 students has plummeted by almost 40 over the two subsequent months.

    That was the discouraging word from Crookston School Board Chair Frank Fee at Monday’s board meeting, held at Highland School, after he got the latest enrollment figures from Business Manager Laura Lyczewski.

    “It’s just unbelievable to me that we can be down like this, and we went conservative with the (1,180 enrollment projection) that we based the budget on,” Fee said. “That’s a quarter of a million dollars we’re going to lose in income (per-pupil state funding).”

    The board, Superintendent Chris Bates and Lyczewski were especially cautious in their enrollment projections as they crafted the district’s 2017-18 budget, after a 2016-17 enrollment decline from opening day to the end of the school year that approached the 60-student range.

    Board members, Bates and Lyczewski continued to voice a familiar refrain Monday when the topic is enrollment volatility in the public schools, that the district’s higher than average student mobility rate makes it especially difficult to maintain a predictable enrollment pattern. Possibly because Crookston is the Polk County seat and, therefore, home to many services for families struggling with poverty and other issues, Fee and Bates indicated, it attracts more families with kids who enroll in the schools, only to move onto somewhere else after a certain period of time.

    “I’m not sure it’s all open enrollment,” Fee said. “I think some people pop from one community to another on a whim. …They come to the county seat for certain benefits and then leave. I’m not saying it’s the reason, but it’s some of the reason.

    “When I think of open enrollment,” he continued, “I think of a child who goes to Fisher or Climax because they’ve had a bad experience (in Crookston’s public schools). But a lot of things are transient, with people just taking off. …It’s just getting to be almost a mass exodus.”

    When board member Dave Davidson wondered why transient families wouldn’t also be coming into the district about as much as they’d be leaving it, and in theory leading to fluctuations in enrollment that trend both up and down, Bates said that’s not necessarily the case. His daughter worked in a Minnesota school district that was also the county seat, he explained, and, there, staff were told that if there were 40 kids in a room on the first day of school, there would likely be only 30 left at the end of the school year.

    “It has to do with poverty; people in poverty move more than people of wealth because people of wealth have a reason to stay,” Bates said. “It’s a sign of the times; kids have needs, people move, they gain or lose employment at a faster rate than the people we mixed with in our time.”

    Five years ago, led by Washington School Principal Denice Oliver, around 100 families who open-enrolled their kids to neighboring school districts were surveyed to find out why they left. Recalling that survey Monday, Fee noted that the families’ answers “were all over the map” and that no obvious trends emerged. Indications Monday were that a similar effort will be undertaken to find out why families and kids continue to leave the district, with the families being able to provide their reasons in anonymous fashion.

    “I’m beyond words here; I just can’t believe you can find a better a better education and a better staff than here,” Fee said. “If we have problems we have to figure it out. Hopefully we can find a common denominator; whether it’s correctable or not, we’ll try to do it.”

    Fee added that if enrollment doesn’t rebound, the board will have to look at making budget reductions at some point. “If we’re losing $250,000 from our original budget, we’re going to have to make cuts where necessary,” he said. “We have a good (unreserved/undesignated) fund balance, but it won’t last long if we have to suck out $250,000 every time we get another enrollment update.”