Stoughton Area School District administrators were hoping for a rebound in enrollment after a tough year of COVID-19-related population drops.
It didn’t happen, district business manager Erika Pickett told the Stoughton Area Board of Education during its Monday, Oct. 4, meeting – but the decrease in student enrollment this year compared to last was minimal, with four fewer students than in previous years.
Based on the September Third Friday count, the district will have 2,764 students both enrolled in-person and in JEDI virtual school, in comparison to 2,768. It’s a larger population of students than the 2,690 students administrators had projected in January when they opened a whopping 738 open enrollment seats.
The district’s population plays a large part in the amount of financial aid received – should the number of students go up or down, it reflects similarly in the operating budget for the year. And as the district has struggled to keep its population from dropping, it’s caused financial strain through the past decade.
“I was hoping we might bounce back up a little bit because we had seen such a decrease last year due to COVID-19, like many districts throughout the state,” she said. “Where we had been seeing a steady decline, we saw a big chunk last year, and we’re pretty consistent with last year this year.”
It’s not expected to get better any time soon, Pickett told board members, as the district’s largest class, the juniors, is 251 students, and classes behind them average between 173 to 200 students. At the elementary schools, none of the grades is larger than 184, based on a pupil count list on the district’s BoardDocs portal.
In addition to the smaller class sizes, Pickett said, the district is still seeing a net loss of students who opt to enroll out of the district. This year, the district will have a net loss of 109 students, with 195 students opting to enroll elsewhere outside of the district and 86 students enrolling in, she said.
“Usually, unfortunately, we find that once we lose them, it’s hard to get them back,” district superintendent Tim Onsager said. “Once we lose one student of the family, their siblings coming behind them usually go, as well.”
The district had 2,901 students during its September 2019 Third Friday count. The student enrollment count is based on the number of students enrolled in the district as of the third Friday of September, which this year was Sept. 17. That count is considered an official tally of a district’s population based on state law, and determines how much state aid a district receives during its annual budget process.
The loss of four students from the year prior amounts to a decrease of $2,968 of per pupil aid the district can use, with $742 allocated per student. It will effectively reduce the district’s operating budget by $3,000, as per-pupil aid decreased to $742 from $750 in the state’s 2021-23 biennial budget, as the state legislature reduced per-pupil aid with the expectation that districts could use federal aid funds to offset the difference.
The district’s enrollment has been declining in the past two decades, as class sizes in the 2000s were closer to 300 students and has experienced a 15% drop in enrollment since the 2010-11 school year. The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic only made it worse, with 138 students leaving the district between 2019-20 and 2020-21 to pursue private school options or homeschooling, Pickett told the board last October.
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