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Lakeland considers student numbers

The number of students in the Lakeland School District grew steadily for a number of years, justifying the district’s closed enrollment policy. Students from outside the district boundaries are welcome to attend Lakeland schools, but for a price of about $100 per month.

The district serving the Rathdrum and Spirit Lake areas is one of a handful in the state without an open enrollment policy that allows students from outside the boundaries to attend at no cost. But that could change at the district’s school board meeting in May.

An open enrollment policy has been tossed around in board discussions for years, but an unexpected decline in enrollment and the addition of a new elementary school brought the issue to the forefront this year. Board Chairman Don Soltman hasn’t decided whether the board will vote on the policy, but he expects a lengthy discussion and a decision is possible.

“The issue really revolves around space,” Soltman said. “Do we have enough classroom space to handle the extra kids?”

After years of growth, enrollment in Lakeland schools declined this school year by about 70 students, dropping to 4,438. With a 300-student elementary school scheduled to open this fall, there’s plenty of room for extra children. But the empty seats don’t always come up in the schools that out-of-district students and their parents are looking at or in the grade levels they need.

Lakeland’s consideration of the enrollment policy change comes at a time when school districts across Idaho are looking at enrollment projections for the coming school year and drafting operating budgets based on them.

The state gives school districts money based on average daily attendance. Each student is worth about $5,000, depending on grade level. But the state does not reimburse districts for students who pay tuition.

If Lakeland were to waive tuition for the 20 out-of-state students now attending its schools, the district would receive about $100,000 more each year.

The Coeur d’Alene School District adopted an open enrollment policy in late 2004 that lets students transfer only to schools and grade levels that have room. Of 186 students who applied this school year, 168 were accepted, the district said.

If the Lakeland school board does decide to open enrollment, the policy likely would be similar, said Ron Schmidt, the district’s assistant superintendent.

There is space in the district for more students, Soltman said. “I’m just not sure they’re in the right places,” he said. “You can have those conditional situations where you say, ‘Yes, we’re open, but this is the school you’re going to have to go to.’ “

Some residents in south Bonner County live closer to Lakeland schools than West Bonner district schools to the north. Parents started an unsuccessful petition drive in 2005 to annex a southern portion of West Bonner into Lakeland so their children could enjoy the shorter commute free of charge. Waiving tuition through an open enrollment policy could mean more parents would choose the shorter trip to Lakeland schools.

And that could reduce state funding for the West Bonner district, acknowledged Superintendent Michael McGuire.

“It would create a bit of a financial challenge since so much of the money goes to where the students go,” McGuire said.

Lakeland and West Bonner are both counting on stagnant enrollment in the coming year. But as the Coeur d’Alene School District found last year when a big overprojection in enrollment resulted in $2.1 million in cuts, the number of children looking to attend school isn’t easy to predict. Underestimating is better than overestimating, so West Bonner and Lakeland district officials are predicting no change, despite a surge of houses being built in both districts. Depending on the number of children in those houses, enrollment in Lakeland could start booming again, and an open enrollment policy could mean rejecting more transfers than accepting.

The West Bonner district will ask voters to approve a $23 million property tax bond May 15 that would remodel existing schools and build an elementary school in Blanchard, much closer to the Lakeland district boundary than to the Priest River-area schools.

District officials are hopeful that would bring in students living in the district but attending a Lakeland school.

“That’s the thinking,” McGuire said.

Like district leaders across Idaho, Lakeland school board members will wrestle with a tough question when they discuss an open enrollment policy: In an area with changing demographics, how can you accurately predict the number of children who will show up to school and stay for the year?

“I keep asking myself that question pretty much every morning I get to work,” said Steve Briggs, business manager for the Coeur d’Alene School District.


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