October 14, 2006 in City

Schools struggle with numbers

By The Spokesman-Review
 
Dan Pelle photo

Moran Prairie teacher Barbara Stern helps, from left, Anthony Ferrante, Alex Berman, Sean McHugh and Kellen Bulger chart information from a pizza topping survey Friday. Stern was a librarian before classroom overcrowding sent her back to teaching.
(Full-size photo)

An unexpected surge in the student population at Moran Prairie Elementary School created a round of musical chairs after the start of this school year.

The librarian was forced to give up her books to move over to teach a third- and fourth-grade combination class, and Principal Matthew Handelman had to quickly hire a teacher for an additional first-grade class to accommodate all the new faces and keep class sizes manageable.

“Our enrollment is the highest that it’s been since I’ve been here,” said Handelman, who’s been at Moran for six years. “In the spring we do staffing, and based on projections … we ended up with even more kiddos than we thought.”

Moran’s plight is good news for Spokane Public Schools officials, who budgeted for 521 fewer students this year. But with 348 new students districtwide as of Oct. 1, the decrease in enrollment is not as high as anticipated.

Total student enrollment is still down from last year, to about 28,801 full-time equivalent students. Total head count is 30,309.

The story is different outside of the city, where schools in Central Valley, Mead, and north and west Spokane County continue to deal with burgeoning student populations.

Mead saw its student population grow to more than 9,000 this year, and Central Valley grew by more than 200 students over last year to 12,000 students.

The growth is a welcome challenge for the districts, because schools receive state funding based on the numbers of full-time equivalent students, or FTEs. The student head count, or the number of students filling desks, is actually higher. Kindergarten students, for example, are considered a .5 FTE because they attend only half-days.

When districts lose students, state funding declines, forcing budget cuts in order to fill the gaps made by lost revenue. For Spokane, that has meant a loss of more than $6 million since the 2000-2001 school years.

In Central Valley, however, lost revenue won’t be the problem. Space is the bigger issue.

Up until 1999, CV, the county’s second largest district, had a stable but steady increase of about 1 percent per year. Since then, the growth rate has been 3 percent or more each year.

For the first time district officials required all parents to fill out forms and provide a current utility bill to confirm that they live within the district’s boundaries. The plan worked, because while enrollment is still up, there were fewer students than expected. The district reported 11,657 full-time students this year.

It was the same in the Mead School District this year, as the district head count jumped by more than 100 students over last year to 8,653 full-time students. The headcount is 9,105.

“We’ve been growing by 200 kids a year, and this is the first year that it’s kind of slowed,” said Wayne Leonard, executive director for business services.

The district continues to refuse out-of-district transfers at the elementary level, a practice that may have helped slow the growth. In the past the district has removed as many as 200 “choice” students.

The district is also in the midst of building a new elementary school on the Five Mile Prairie. The school is set to open in the fall of 2007.

“Over the last several years we’ve had to shift a number of kids around elementary-wise,” Leonard said. “A new school will give us a little breathing room.”

On the West Plains, Cheney Public Schools is enjoying its second year of growth, after several years of decline. The district saw its enrollment increase to 3,470 full-time students, or 3,656 bodies.

“For the first time in five years we continued on an upward climb,” said David Sackville-West, director of finance and operations.

New housing in the Airway Heights and Sunset areas is bringing more students, Sackville-West said. About 100 additional students enrolled at Windsor Elementary School on Hallett Road, southeast of Spokane International Airport. In 2003 Windsor had 286 students. This year the school is reaching capacity, with 459 students.

“It’s a nice problem to have,” Sackville-West said.

Deer Park, north of the city, is also facing shortages in space. The district’s head count increased to 2,448, 140 students above budget, said Superintendent Mick Miller.

“We continue each month to have record enrollment,” Miller said.

Miller said the school board plans to run a bond in the spring to build a new high school. The school graduated 105 students last year, and replaced them with a freshmen class of 188 students.

“We are just bursting at the high school; there is no room,” Miller said. “It’s really beautiful country here and I think as people are able to get out north easier, if we ever get a north-south freeway built, this area is going to explode.”

Staff writer Kandis Carper contributed to this report.

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