The big picture

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, October 5, 1999

From staff reports

One thousand fewer students in the next decade.

Tuesday, October 05, 1999

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One thousand fewer students in the next decade. The prospect is frightening, signaling potential consequences for everything from filling local jobs to filling seats in local schools.

The school board on Monday took initial steps to prepare for the projected enrollment decline by accepting a recommendation to close Brookside Middle School to students. A final decision is pending. And, no doubt further steps will be needed if enrollment continues to decline as projected. What those steps will be remains to be seen.

Yet, one thing is clear.

It is not the school district’s fault. Shrinking enrollment in the public school district should not become a blame game, nor something we are afraid to discuss freely.

One could easily argue the shift in demographics should have been no surprise at all.

There were negative projections for Albert Lea from both the federal Census Bureau and the state demographer in the past few years. That a private demographer hired by the district projects dropping enrollment numbers is no shocker.

Also, the school district could not possibly turn this population shift around. It can only react. In recent years, reacting has meant letting teachers go. Today, it likely means closing a school and other restructuring. In the future, more may be needed. Simply put, fewer students means less need for educational services; cuts and restructuring are unavoidable.

There remain some unknowns.

Would the public have paid for a new high school, had these enrollment projections been available during the referendum vote? Hard to say, although the referendum was passed to provide students with better facilities. A new school will serve students well, although it remains unclear whether having one-quarter fewer students by 2010 could mean smaller classes, empty rooms or some other effect.

Will enrollment continue to drop after 2010? The private demographer hired by the district suggests the answer to that may be no.

Can the city and county do anything to bring in more families, and children? Certainly. A recent worker recruiting effort that targets cities facing layoffs is one example. But with every community vying for jobs and workers, success is never guaranteed.

Is there an easy solution? Clearly not.

For now, the best course is to look at shrinking enrollment as a continuing community problem, not a problem that is solely the domain of the public school district. To survive and grow, this community needs young families not only to fill the schools, but young workers to maintain the tax base and provide essential services to a growing elderly population.

That is the big picture.