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Declining enrollment, funds for Douglas County schools

William Ferchland, Tahoe Daily Tribune

The Douglas County School District is strapped for cash.

The district will experience a projected $893,286 loss in 2002-03 from declining enrollment, interest income loss and rising costs in health care and utilities, said Rick Kester, director of business services for the district.

Douglas County is experiencing its third straight year of declining enrollment.

“We basically had a lot of growth for about 17 or so years then we had flat enrollment then the last three years we’ve had declining enrollment,” Kester said.

Kester said the district’s declining enrollment is interesting. The county has been in the throes of an economic boom where 400 to 500 new homes are built in the county every year. The population continues to increase by more than 3 percent a year.

But students, especially young children, continue to elude the district’s grasp. New residents tend to be semi-retired or retired people, Kester said.

On the Nevada side of Lake Tahoe, enrollment has declined since the 1997-98 school year when there was a total of 942 students at Zephyr Cove Elementary, Kingsbury Middle School and Whittell High. Since that time, enrollment has decreased to 757 lake students for the 2001-02 school year.

Kester attributes the loss of students at the lake to a lack of affordable housing on the Nevada side. He believes families with school-age children are migrating to the California side where housing prices are more relaxed because of a higher supply of residences.

The closings of five apartment buildings on Kahle Drive contributed to the loss of 100 to 150 students for Douglas County, Kester estimated.

Kevin Cole, a 16-year Realtor at South Lake Tahoe, is seeing a trend of families heading toward the Carson Valley area.

Higher rents on the Nevada side of the lake are caused by lack of construction space since the mountain in Nevada goes straight to the lake, Cole said.

It results in higher construction costs.

“There were more homes built in California which are older, smaller homes which are more affordable,” Cole said.

Compounding the district’s headache from the loss of revenue is a push by the Douglas County Professional Education Association for an increase in teachers’ wages this year.

The last cost-of-living increase was about four years ago, Kester said.

“We would have to make budget cuts to fund the salary increase and we do not believe that’s in the best interest of the students,” he said. “We believe they deserve a cost-of-living raise but we lost the fight at the legislative level.”

Don Hataway, the deputy budget director for Nevada, said the state legislature provided a 2 percent cost of living increase for Nevada school district employees for the next fiscal year. Another 2 percent increase is planned for the 2004-05 fiscal year, he said.

A citizens committee meets monthly in Las Vegas to discuss budget issues, including reforming the tax structure.

“The legislature is trying but there is only so much money to go around,” Hataway said.

The committee will conclude work Nov. 1 and submit its ideas to Gov. Kenny Guinn.

Douglas school board member George Echan marched at the state capital last year with parents and teachers for state revenues for the district. There was some relief in health care funding, he said.

“The declining enrollment has significant financial impacts especially in Nevada where we’re so dependent on state revenue for operating expenses in school,” he said.

The Washoe County School District is experiencing an $8 million deficit, Echan said. Douglas is not in that situation yet, but budget concerns in other areas like transportation and public utility “cry out” for tax reform in Nevada, Echan said.

The effects of low enrollment have already been felt.

“The one adjustment that you have to make as your enrollment declines is to adjust your staff and we’ve been doing that,” Kester said. “We have about 15-20 fewer teachers than we did four years ago.”


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