Birth rates blamed for enrollment drop

Published 12:00 am Friday, December 3, 1999

Declining birth rates and student enrollment were the topics of discussion during a public hearing at the high school Thursday.

Friday, December 03, 1999

Declining birth rates and student enrollment were the topics of discussion during a public hearing at the high school Thursday. Consulting demographer Hazel Reinhardt gave her report before residents and members of the school board.

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The problems here are only reflections of what is happening elsewhere in Minnesota and across the country, Reinhardt said. Her report was requested by the school board as a way to measure future school enrollments. Enrollments have been steadily declining here, and the school district is losing per-pupil education funding as a result. In fact, projections estimate a 1,000 student enrollment drop may occur during the next 10 years.

There are two major factors contributing to the problem, Reinhardt said. The population is getting older and family sizes are not as large as they once where. Birth rates since 1990 have steadily decreased, because of the number of people above child bearing age. Reinhardt predicts that the number of women in prime childbearing age will remain small through 2010.

Enrollment reductions can be seen in both rural and urban school districts. Many districts across the nation are faced with the difficulty of what to do with school buildings that are no longer appropriate for shrinking classes.

The Minnesota K-12 student body is projected to peak this school year, 1999-2000, before steadily declining about 4 percent per year for the next 10 years, she said. Some losses in school enrollment are due to migration. An average 2 percent of students transfer from public to private schools, or chose open enrollment or charter school options. Those losses, however are not as significant as the birth rate.

Enrollment in this school district in 1990 was 4,257, while in 1998 it was 3,994. There were increases in some years, but a large decrease overall. In 1991, for example, enrollment was up to 4,331. Between 1992-1993 enrollment increased from 4,305-4,338. After 1993, however, there was a continuing decline.

Between the years 1984 and 1997 resident births in the county declined 30 percent.

&uot;There is not a county in the state that has not felt a similar decline,&uot; Reinhardt said.

Aside from the declining birth rate, there are some things communities are trying to increase enrollment. There have been attempts to draw student populations from other areas, or lure younger families with children with the promise of better jobs. For the most part, though, Albert Lea and Freeborn County seem to be attractive for older, retirement-age people, which does nothing to change current trends in birth rate and enrollment, Reinhardt said.

To maintain the current enrollment, there would have to be an influx of 33 percent of young families to the area, and there would have to be housing available to them, Reinhardt said.

Closure of rural schools or the combination of school districts does not seem to help, some residents present at the hearing said.

&uot;When a school is closed in an area, communities die,&uot; one resident said.

&uot;You could combine all three school districts in the county and you would still be faced with the problem of declining enrollment,&uot; said state Representative Dan Dorman, R-Albert Lea, who was present at the hearing.

Dorman said there is little talk at the state level of combining any school districts.

Reinhardt said the current trends may lead to a change in the way the state reimburses schools for each student. There has been talk that the governor may announce an increase in state aid per student. The Albert Lea school district, however, is still faced with a decision on how to reorganize now in order to save money and preserve a quality educational system.

The decision on a reorganization plan is expected to come at the school board’s regular meeting Monday. The meeting is scheduled for 7 p.m. in the board room.

Reinhardt was one of the first state demographers and worked in that capacity from 1974-1979. Since then she has done work primarily for school districts, she said.