Declining enrollment may lead to the shutting down of a grade school, Board told

Eleven years of shrinking enrollment have prompted local education officials to consider closing an elementary school.

The Del Norte County Unified School District has lost roughly 1,200 students since 2002-03, Superintendent Don Olson told School Board members Thursday. The district has also lost about $6 million in revenue due to the decline, he said, but continues to operate the same number of school sites it did a decade ago.

Olson asked the School Board to form an advisory committee of seven to 11 community members to gather facts and make a recommendation. This might be a four- to five-month process, he said, which means the Board could make a decision on closing a school as early as September.

"The decision to close a school is anguishing," he said. "It alters district operation and it also alters lives. But the long-term effects can be beneficial."

The district could save $250,000 to $350,000 per year if it operates one less school, Olson said. Many staff and faculty members haven't had raises in years, he added.

The district has shrunk from 5,400 students in the 2002-03 school year to 4,180 in the current school year, Olson said. Enrollment increased by about 240 students in the 2003-04 school year, but dropped steadily every year thereafter.

In his presentation to the board, Olson also included enrollment information for schools in Humboldt, Mendocino and Sonoma counties. The average enrollment at the schools outside Del Norte was 394 students, he said.

Among the five Del Norte elementary schools Olson listed, only Mary Peacock Elementary School, with a student body of 384, approached the regional average.

The other Del Norte County schools Olson mentioned in his presentation included Bess Maxwell Elementary with 256 students, Joe Hamilton with 294 students, Pine Grove with 234 students and Smith River with 217 students. Each of these schools serves kindergarten through fifth grade except for Smith River, which serves kindergarten through eighth grade.

Redwood Elementary School, a K-8 school in Fort Dick, already has an enrollment of more than 400 students, Olson said. Mountain Elementary School in Gasquet and Margaret Keating Elementary School in Klamath are not candidates for closure due to their distance from the other schools, Olson said.

Steve Godla, the district's assistant superintendent of instruction and educational services, said closing Margaret Keating or Mountain would not save the district money due to the cost of busing students to other schools.

Members of the advisory committee will be asked to keep in mind the desirability of having schools with two classes in each grade level in locations that enable as many students as possible to walk to school, Olson said.

"With education you want to have a collaboration," he said. "You really want to have at least two (classes) of each grade level, which means you have a school of about 400."

The committee will be asked not to relocate any K-6 student to a school that is more than five miles from home, to achieve school enrollments as close to 400 as possible and maintain the K-5 status of elementary schools that currently have it.

The last time the district dealt with the idea of closing a school was about 10 years ago when it formed a panel of community members called the Blue Ribbon Committee, Olson said. Even though the district had more students, the committee recommended closing Pine Grove Elementary.

"At that time, to close (a school) didn't seem like something we should be doing," Olson said.

Pine Grove Principal Lara Hirt was at Thursday's meeting and told the Board, "No matter which school you consider closing, you're looking at absorbing a significant portion of staff."

District employee Patti Rommel, who was a school facilities planner for the state of California and in the private sector, encouraged the Board to get input from the business community before making its final decision.

"You should make sure that if you're closing a school you're not doing it when the business community launches a huge campaign to bring business in," she said, adding that the number of schools in a community is important to its business structure.

Olson speculated that the district's dwindling enrollment may be a result of the decline of the lumber industry and local fisheries, citing the closure of Hambro Forest Products as an example.

Contributors to the enrollment decline - to the tune of about 220 students - are the local charter schools, Uncharted Shores Academy and Klamath River Early College of the Redwoods, Olson said.

Earlier at Thursday's meeting, Deputy Superintendent Rodney Jahn said he projected a student enrollment of 3,460 for September 2013. The district's student enrollment in September 2012 was 3,462.

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