Placer school districts wrestle with declining enrollment

More questions than answers as administrators discuss the future
By: Andrew Westrope, Staff Writer
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There is growing concern among Placer Hills and Placer Union school administrators about an ongoing downturn in local student enrollment.

At a special study session meeting on Tuesday, the Placer Union High School District Board of Trustees hosted members of the board and administration from Placer Hills Union School District to discuss the impact on school revenue.

Placer Union Superintendent Dave Horsey said Foresthill and Colfax are bearing the brunt of the current decline in the high school district, having lost about 16 and 21 percent of their student bodies, respectively, over the past three years. Enrollment is actually on the rise at Del Oro and fairly steady at Placer High, but Horsey said incoming students have not offset the movement of young families from the area. Enrollment statistics from Placer Hills, an important feeder district for Placer Union, show the same: a 20 percent decline since spring 2010.

In two years, according to Horsey, enrollment at Colfax High will be back to 1972 levels of about 560 students – a far cry from its peak of 1,047 in the 1990s.

Placer Hills Superintendent Fred Adam was not hopeful that this trend would reverse any time soon.

“There’s just not the economic opportunities, there’s not the chance for people to do jobs here (in the foothills), and if (parents) are going to take their child with them down where they’re working, it’s not coming up here,” he said. “No matter how high quality our programs are in our district … getting folks to come up the hill is a heck of a task, so the trend does not seem to be one that’s going to change.”

Weimar Hills School Principal Steve Schaumleffel said the issue of declining enrollment has been ongoing for 12 years, and compounded with a decline in per pupil revenue from the state and changing generational demographics, it has already forced Weimar and Sierra Hills schools to make cuts.

“We’ve lost almost all of our support personnel in terms of teacher support, remediation, GATE (Gifted and Talented Education) Program … and then we’ve had to cut teachers for the same reason. It hasn’t negatively impacted students because we’ve made cuts where it’s appropriate to maintain class sizes at the same basic levels. Obviously it’s not been good for the school, because as you cut teachers, you lose periphery programs,” he said, citing music and other fine arts programs as examples. “I don’t think students are conscious that they’ve felt the effect. I do think that there are not as many programs available to them as there were, say, 12 or 14 years ago.”

Because the problem affects all kids in the area, Adam said, it will require a collaborative solution.

“A good number of the kids at Colfax High came through the Placer Hills school district, so they truly are ‘our kids,’” he said. “Looking to the future, whether we’re saying that future is five years or 10 years out, there has to be some serious conversation as to what is the best way to deliver the highest quality education to our kids here in the foothills, defined frankly from Newcaslte on up, from our perspective.”

Schaumleffel believes the community is maxed out with fundraisers. Adam mentioned the eventual possibility of sharing resources between districts where feasible, though he did not believe becoming a unified school district would be the answer.

Horsey agreed, recalling that talk of district consolidation comes up about every 18 months to some degree but is not, at this point, an immediate likelihood.

“About six years ago, there was a concerted effort from a group to see if there would be a county-wide interest in a unified school district, and then with the politics of that and the finance of state departments … it never really panned out,” he said. “We remain a high school district with many feeder districts, and we’ve got a good relationship with those.”

Horsey said a budget pinch would not affect Placer Union High School District’s commitment to not only its core classes but specialty programs like AP and honors classes, fine arts, sports and career tech ed. He said the district’s open enrollment status helps preserve these by allowing parents to send their children to any school in the district. This draws some students to certain schools based on the quality of their particular programs, but this way, the program may survive within the district by being closed or reduced at other schools if need be.

Graduation classes are shrinking, but many Placer High students and parents say they have not yet noticed a change in program.

Barbara Hallbourg, a Placer High School parent and instructional aid at Bowman Charter School, said she has heard about declining enrollment and has “been noticing cuts for years,” but she does not believe enrollment is a big issue.

“I think enrollment fluctuates from time to time,” she said. “I don’t think that any programs need to be cut, and I think the whole system needs to be reevaluated before they start making any more cuts.”

Seventeen-year-old Placer High student Ashley Love said she has not noticed any decrease in revenue and doesn’t think one has impacted students. Her friend, 16-year-old Philecia Billingsly, agreed, and said cutting programs should be the last thing on the list if the budget gets tight.

“I haven’t really seen (a difference),” Billingsly said. “(Programs) are all important to every kid, because every kid is different. People like different things, like welding and wood shop.”