A month into the new school year, Spokane Public Schools’ projected enrollment is off by 258 students.
“It’s one of those benchmarks we have to monitor very closely because we essentially built our budget on a higher enrollment level,” said Linda McDermott, the district’s chief financial officer.
Every year, Spokane-area school districts predict how many students will attend school in the fall. Because those predictions are used to build the district’s budget, accurately projecting enrollment is important.
In the past few years Spokane Public Schools’ predictions hovered around actual enrollment. In 2016-17, 58 fewer students enrolled than predicted. The year before, 81 fewer students enrolled. In 2014-15, 73 more students enrolled.
However, in 2013-14, the district enrolled 258 more students than anticipated – the same discrepancy, coincidentally, as the current school year.
“We couldn’t pinpoint any particular area that factored into the estimate,” McDermott said of this year’s discrepancy.
And while the difference between predicted and actual enrollment could impact the district’s overall budget, McDermott believes that over the course of the year the gap will close. Throughout the year, the district will collect enrollment data and use that to create an average, McDermott said.
“When you’re forecasting for 30,000 students, and across 50-plus buildings, it’s an art,” she said. “It’s both an art and a science.”
Superintendent Shelley Redinger said that when drafting the district’s $419 million budget she urges staff and board members to build in wiggle room.
“The budget is based on projections so you don’t want to make anything too tight,” she said.
Redinger also points out that in a district the size of Spokane Public Schools, 258 students doesn’t represent a significant percentage of overall enrollment.
“Our budget is so big and we have so many kids,” she said. “That percentage doesn’t matter (too much).”
For smaller Spokane-area districts, the margin for error is tighter.
“Our enrollment has been very stable for the last 20 years,” said West Valley School District Superintendent Gene Sementi. “We’re right at where we are normally are.”
As of October, West Valley had about 3,700 students enrolled, Sementi said.
It’s the same in the East Valley School District, said Superintendent Kelly Shea.
“We’re not losing, but we’re not really gaining,” Shea said.
This year, 4,244 students enrolled in the district, he said. Unlike larger districts, Shea noted that if there were a large spike or decrease in enrollment it would be hard for the small district to respond.
“We don’t have a mechanism for rapid growth,” he said.
The Central Valley School District had 13,783 enrolled students as of this month. Last year, the district enrolled 13,564, said spokeswoman Marla Nunberg.
The district anticipates growth in the coming years and will ask voters to approve a $130 million bond in 2018. Over the past three years, the district has remodeled and rebuilt a number of district schools.
The Cheney School District also anticipates enrollment growth with more development of the West Plains, said associate Superintendent Sean Dotson.
“We’ve met with the counties, and the cities and we do know that some additional homes are being built,” he said.
As this month, 4,678 students were enrolled in the district. That is slightly higher than district administrators anticipated, Dotson said. Last year, the district underestimated their enrollment “pretty significantly.” A hundred more students showed up in September than planned for, Dotson said.
“We have to be so careful in making those projections and then wait and see what happens,” he said.