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School enrollment plateaus could create future challenges

Cory Fisher

Add slow population growth to South Lake Tahoe’s high transiency rate, and the result may be new challenges for the Lake Tahoe Unified School District.

Typically, 20 percent of the district’s student body turns over each year, sometimes resulting in a shuffling of teachers and students.

But a recent flattening out of enrollment numbers complicates matters even further when it comes to maintaining a balance between funding and staffing.

“For the first time, enrollment numbers at the elementary level have dropped below those of the prior year,” said LTUSD Business Manager Ralph Johnson. “We’re seeing a slow-growth trend districtwide that we expect will be with us through the year 2000. We’re not getting feedback that the economy is strong and vibrant – that’s usually what draws people to our area.”

Close to 90 percent of funds received from the state are tied to enrollment figures, Johnson said, and “if enrollment slows, revenues slow.”

Each year, the district loses students due to families leaving the area, graduating seniors, dropouts, independent study and transfers to county-run alternative programs.

Until recently, overall annual enrollment growth has helped to compensate for the loss of those students. But last year, the district’s seven schools lost a total of 275 students – 90 of whom attended South Tahoe High School.

“We saw a 5-percent decrease in the district,” Johnson said. “In past years, we’ve averaged 2- to 3-percent increases in average daily attendance numbers.”

The district experienced its biggest boom in the 1980s, when growth peaked at 8 percent between 1987 and 1988.

Enrollment numbers reflect trends, but actual funding is based on the number of days attended by each student throughout each year. The district does not get paid for unexcused absences, which are traditionally more common in the upper grades.

This coming year, the district is projecting a growth of only seven “average daily attendees” – virtually no growth compared to other years, Johnson said.

“We lost everything we gained last year,” he said. “This is a very different pattern than most districts in California.”

Should low or no growth continue, staff cost-of-living increases may not keep pace with salary increases – which, by contract, go up each additional year that a teacher stays in the district.

Last year’s dramatic enrollment fluctuation led to a re-evaluation of staffing levels, which is more than a numbers issue – it’s also an emotional one.

By law, all districts must report their annual enrollment figures to the state in October, Johnson said, which is generally when student numbers theoretically reach their peak. However, if enrollment drops – as it did last year – the possibility of mid-year layoffs looms large because student-teacher ratios calculated in October may dictate reductions.

In order to protect against possible layoffs, schools are opting to not base staffing levels on October enrollment. Instead, they will use adjusted projections that reflect student drop-off rates throughout the year, Johnson said.

But staffing cannot always be spread evenly.

While elementary schools struggle to maintain exact student-teacher ratios to receive state class-size reduction funding, the upper grades face the challenge of staffing teachers credentialed in specific subjects. In addition, despite low numbers, certain classes must be offered – like those required for college admittance. That means the 30.5-1 student-teacher ratio simply reflects an overall average.

“And at the high school we have some yearlong courses,” said STHS interim Principal Karen Ellis. “And you can’t drop French or calculus, even if you only have 10 students in the class – the largest classes will be those that are requirements for all students.”

The school’s 12 Advanced Placement classes average 15 students, Ellis said, therefore the district allowed for one extra teacher to offset possible overcrowding of mainstream classes. However, programs like the Naval Junior ROTC and Regional Occupation Programs do help to keep class sizes down, Johnson said.

“This new focus on staffing levels is making everyone nervous,” said one teacher who didn’t want her name published. “Especially probationary teachers who have moved up here thinking they had a lifetime job.”

But the question remains – were last year’s numbers an exception or a sign of things to come? No one knows for sure.

“Future enrollment will affect us dramatically,” said Superintendent Rich Alexander. “Even if our enrollment stays the same over several years, the amount of unrestricted funds gets smaller and smaller as costs continue to rise.”


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