Pre­dict­ing en­roll­ment changes no easy task

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - NORTHWEST ARKANSAS - DAVE PEROZEK

School dis­tricts con­tin­u­ally are try­ing to pre­dict how many stu­dents they will serve in the fu­ture. It doesn’t al­ways work out well.

“We’d like to think it’s an ex­act science, but it’s not,” said Mar­lin Berry, su­per­in­ten­dent of the Rogers School Dis­trict.

Rogers is a prime ex­am­ple of how pro­jec­tions aren’t al­ways re­li­able.

The School Board voted unan­i­mously in June to de­cline about $2.3 mil­lion from the state’s Aca­demic Fa­cil­i­ties Part­ner­ship Pro­gram to help pay for con­struc­tion of an­other el­e­men­tary school.

The dis­trict would have had to com­plete the build­ing project within four years to qual­ify for that state aid. The board agreed with ad­min­is­tra­tors Rogers had no need for an­other school within that time frame based on pro­jec­tions show­ing a slight de­cline in el­e­men­tary-level en­roll­ment over the next five years.

On Oct. 1, how­ever, Rogers el­e­men­tary schools counted 7,367 stu­dents, an in­crease of 287, or 4 per­cent, from one year ear­lier and 163 more than the dis­trict’s pro­jec­tion. To­tal dis­trict en­roll­ment was 222 more than pro­jected.

Berry and the board dis­cussed the sit­u­a­tion sev­eral times be­fore the board voted last week to ask vot­ers for a 3.5-mill prop­erty tax in­crease that would pay for two more el­e­men­tary schools, both of which are ex­pected to cost about $ 18 mil­lion. It also would pro­vide money for tech­nol­ogy, ren­o­va­tion of older cam­puses and se­cu­rity im­prove­ments.

The mil­lage elec­tion will be May 9. The Ben­tonville School Dis­trict will seek a 1.9-mill tax in­crease on the same day.

Berry, who joined Rogers as su­per­in­ten­dent in July, said it would be nice to have a “doover” of the board’s vote on the state part­ner­ship money.

“I be­lieve that money is gone now for that cy­cle,” he said.

Berry ad­mit­ted it’s awk­ward to be in a po­si­tion where the dis­trict is now hop­ing to open its next el­e­men­tary school in 2019 less than a year af­ter say­ing it didn’t need one. But he’s not com­plain­ing about the de­ci­sion made by the board and pre­vi­ous ad­min­is­tra­tion un­der Su­per­in­ten­dent Janie Darr.

“I don’t know all of the con­ver­sa­tion that went into that, but I do be­lieve at that time they prob­a­bly made an OK de­ci­sion,” he said.

Darr said the for­mula the dis­trict used to make its pro­jec­tions was one that had served the dis­trict well for many years.

“It was a very good model and the pre­dic­tions were al­ways right on track,” Darr said. “I can’t tell you what hap­pened with this year’s el­e­men­tary stu­dents.”

The dis­trict’s en­roll­ment in­crease of 322 stu­dents this school year comes one year af­ter the dis­trict saw growth of only 50 stu­dents. Berry wasn’t sure what led to the en­roll­ment spike.

“I think it’s one of those ‘all of the above’ sit­u­a­tions,” he said. “I think it’s new hous­ing, I think it’s an econ­omy that’s com­ing back even more. I think it’s the at­trac­tion of North­west Ar­kan­sas. I think it’s the Rogers School Dis­trict.”

Berry is fa­mil­iar with school growth is­sues, hav­ing spent six years as su­per­in­ten­dent of the Olathe, Kan., School Dis­trict, be­fore com­ing to Rogers. Olathe’s en­roll­ment grew nearly 2,000 stu­dents dur­ing that time.

Cal­cu­lat­ing how en­roll­ment will change be­gins by ap­ply­ing a “re­ten­tion ra­tio” to the cur­rent stu­dents and fig­ur­ing out how many kinder­gart­ners will be en­ter­ing ver­sus how many se­niors are grad­u­at­ing. What’s much harder to pre­dict is how many stu­dents will be mov­ing into the dis­trict, Berry said.

A care­ful study of new sub­di­vi­sions can pro­vide some in­sight as to who might be mov­ing in, de­pend­ing on the ex­pected prices of those homes. An up­scale sub­di­vi­sion, for ex­am­ple, is more likely to at­tract fam­i­lies with older chil­dren, Berry said.

“A good plan­ner can take a look at a sub­di­vi­sion and project how many kids we’re go­ing to gain from that as the houses come on,” Berry said.

The next el­e­men­tary school Rogers plans to open will be in the fast- grow­ing south­west part of the dis­trict, served now by three el­e­men­tary schools: Darr, Tucker and Bel­lview.

There are 900 lots or plats with roads in the Darr El­e­men­tary bound­ary area, 21 lots in Tucker’s zone and 20 in Bel­lview’s zone. An­other 84 lots are avail­able in the neigh­bor­ing Jones El­e­men­tary zone, ac­cord­ing to Berry.

Berry also wants to take a closer look at the “in loco par­en­tis” chil­dren — those mov­ing to Rogers to live with a grand­par­ent or other fam­ily mem­ber be­cause their par­ents are un­able to care for them.

Those stu­dents “aren’t on re­ten­tion ra­tios, aren’t on pro­jec­tions, aren’t based on hous­ing. Those are based on un­for­tu­nate fam­ily sit­u­a­tions,” he said.

Kathy Deck , a Univer­sity of Ar­kan­sas econ­o­mist and di­rec­tor of the Cen­ter for Busi­ness and Eco­nomic Re­search, said North­west Ar­kan­sas is poised to con­tinue grow­ing.

“From my per­spec­tive, pop­u­la­tion growth in North­west Ar­kan­sas is di­rectly re­lated to the eco­nomic vi­tal­ity of the re­gion.”

— Kathy Deck, econ­o­mist

Job growth, though ex­pected to be less dy­namic than it was last year, should re­main strong this year, she said.

Job growth at­tracts more peo­ple, which means more chil­dren fill­ing the schools, Deck said.

“From my per­spec­tive, pop­u­la­tion growth in North­west Ar­kan­sas is di­rectly re­lated to the eco­nomic vi­tal­ity of the re­gion,” Deck said. “The rea­son we’ve had such great growth in the area is be­cause of the enor­mous pros­per­ity the re­gion has had. There is noth­ing on the hori­zon that throws the brakes on that.”

OTHER DIS­TRICTS

The Ben­tonville School Dis­trict has ex­pe­ri­enced heav­ier en­roll­ment growth in the past sev­eral years than Rogers has. Ben­tonville’s growth rate from one year to the next has ranged be­tween 1.4 per­cent and 5.4 per­cent over the last five years.

Ben­tonville hired a Cal­i­for­nia firm in 2013 to con­duct a de­mo­graph­ics study to help dis­trict of­fi­cials un­der­stand pre­cisely where the growth was oc­cur­ring and how much of it to ex­pect over the next decade. That kind of data helps iden­tify where and when a grow­ing school dis­trict should be build­ing new schools.

Of­fi­cials con­tinue to use the data from that study but also are do­ing re­search of their own, said Tanya Sharp, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of stu­dent ser­vices.

“Look­ing at our cities that our bound­ary takes in, we look at build­ing per­mits, sub­di­vi­sions planned,” Sharp said. “We work with those city of­fi­cials to de­ter­mine the growth they are see­ing and the new build­ing they are see­ing within their com­mu­ni­ties.”

Cen­ter­ton and the south por­tion of Ben­tonville’s dis­trict are grow­ing par­tic­u­larly quickly. The dis­trict is pre­dict­ing 3.5 per­cent en­roll­ment growth each year for the next decade, she said.

Ben­tonville’s en­roll­ment in­creased by 550 stu­dents this year. The dis­trict had pro­jected be­tween 450 and 475 ad­di­tional stu­dents this year, Sharp said.

Ad­min­is­tra­tors keep an eye on en­roll­ment through­out the year, com­par­ing num­bers with the same dates in pre­vi­ous Jared years. Cleve­land, deputy su­per­in­ten­dent of Springdale schools, said Springdale takes a “re­ally good, ed­u­cated guess” when it comes to pro­ject­ing en­roll­ment, helped in part by data pro­vided by the trans­porta­tion de­part­ment’s Robert Guadagnini, whom Cleve­land called a “ge­nius” when it comes to pro­jec­tions.

“We map out where each child map­ping lives, out, and we throughget some that ex­tra data the trans­porta­tion de­part­ment doesn’t re­ally use, but it helps me with our data to help with those ed­u­cated guesses,” Cleve­land said. “It shows where we are grow­ing, how many rooftops are be­ing built here, how many there.” The lo­cal birth rate, hous­ing per­mits and the re­gion’s over­all pop­u­la­tion pro­jec­tions also fac­tor into the dis­trict’s pro­jec­tions, Cleve­land said. Com­pli­cat­ing mat­ters some­what is the in­crease of open-en­roll­ment char­ter schools in the re­gion. Such schools can ac­cept any stu­dent who lives in Ar­kan­sas. The School Choice Act al­lows stu­dents to en­roll in a dis­trict other than the one in which they live, as­sum­ing the re­ceiv­ing dis­trict has room for them. The state also has a voucher sys­tem that al­lows stu­dents with spe­cial needs to ap­ply up to $6,646 of state money per year to­ward tu­ition and fees at an ap­proved pri­vate school.

“In the end, when you have all those vari­ables, how do you project en­roll­ment over the next few years?” Cleve­land said. “There’s a whole lot to it.”

The Fayet­teville School Dis­trict’s growth rate has hov­ered be­tween 1 per­cent and 3 per­cent per year the past five years. The dis­trict is in the process of hir­ing a de­mog­ra­pher to con­duct a new study that will pro­vide some up­dated pro­jec­tions soon, said Alan Wil­bourn, a dis­trict spokesman.

“We’ve been pretty steady, but we want to know if that’s go­ing to hold,” Wil­bourn said.

NWA Demo­crat-Gazette/AN­THONY REYES • @NWATONYR

Fifth-graders Palmer Jur­gens­meyer (from left), 11, Tuff Schure­man, 10, Lily Still, 10, and Jai Gandhi, 11, fin­ish their math as­sign­ment Thurs­day at Bel­lview El­e­men­tary School in Rogers. Bel­lview has re­ceived a lot of over­flow stu­dents from other el­e­men­tary schools filled to ca­pac­ity.

NWA Demo­crat-Gazette/AN­THONY REYES • @NWATONYR

Donna Far­ley, fifth-grade teacher, talks Thurs­day with Seth Fulfer, 11, about his math as­sign­ment at Bel­lview El­e­men­tary School in Rogers. Bel­lview has re­ceived a lot of over­flow stu­dents from other el­e­men­tary schools filled to ca­pac­ity.

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