Local school districts see a drop in enrollment; some students shift to at-home learning

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — All three Routt County School Districts saw a slight drop in enrollment from the 2019-20 school year to the current year.

The state takes official student counts Oct. 1, though some of those numbers are still being finalized.

The Steamboat Springs School District budgeted in June for 2,630 students, but have 2,524 students as of Oct. 1. That represents 89 fewer students than the enrollment Oct. 1, 2019, and 106 students from what was budgeted for this summer.

“The impact on the budget has not been as bad,” Superintendent Brad Meeks said at Monday’s Board of Education meeting. That’s because the state has allowed averaging enrollments over five years, he said.

A total of 220 students chose the district’s 100% online option, down about 100 students who first signed up and then changed their mind after the 10-day trial period, Meeks said.

The question is, Meeks said, where did those 106 students go?

Thirty-six Steamboat students chose different online programs or opted to homeschool, and 33 students chose a different school in Northwest Colorado, some private and some public, Meeks said.

There was also a significant discrepancy in the kindergarten estimate, which is primarily based on the birth rate from five years ago, Meeks said. Thirty-seven fewer students enrolled in kindergarten this year than anticipated.

The South Routt School District also lost about 13 students, with nine online learners. Because of the five-year averaging, that translates into a budget decrease of about $40,000, according to South Routt Superintendent Rim Watson.

The Hayden School District lost 21 students, with 16 online learners. That means a decrease of about $43,000, when spread over the five years, according to Hayden Superintendent Christy Sinner.

The trend of decreased enrollment is one being seen across the state and country, largely attributed to the COVID-19 pandemic and parents electing to find different educational pathways. It’s also dependent on what school districts have enacted for this new school year.

Approximately 73% of school districts in Colorado are offering some form of in-person learning option as of mid-September, according to the Colorado Department of Education. The majority of those are in smaller and rural districts, however, accounting for only about 37% of the state’s public school students.

Colorado’s largest district — Denver Public Schools — projected a loss of about 1% to 2% in enrollment. That district saw about 56% of students electing the in-person option — currently only available for elementary school students — with about 39% choosing the online option.

While Denver was going to open middle and high schools to in-person learning Oct. 21, they have now delayed that decision into November.

Meeks said that collectively, the seven districts in the Northwest Colorado region lost about 350 students. He said districts across the state are seeing the same thing, and there’s conversation about what is happening with the additional money budgeted for all those kindergarten through 12th-grade students.

Meeks said he’d like to see it put back into kindergarten through 12th-grade education, such as adding it back to the per-pupil funding formula that saw a decrease this year.

Steamboat’s revenue ended up at $285,800 more than was forecast in June, Meeks said. There were increases in property tax abatement, specific ownership tax and state revenue, but decreases in federal revenue and interested and miscellaneous expenses, such as athletic fees and activity passes.

“The ending fund balance actually grew,” Meeks said.

A big part of that, he said, had to do with shutting down a lot of operations from March to June due to COVID-19. There was no longer a need for substitute teachers, busses, field trips and other spring activities as students stayed home.

That makes the projected deficit a more manageable number, Meeks said. The projected deficit, at about $825,000, is up $300,000 from the June forecast.

The COVID-19-related CARES funding provided $560,000 for online, staffing and curriculum materials and software; $315,000 for technology devices; $150,000 for health and safety; and $55,000 that went to the North Routt Community Charter School.

In terms of expenses that grew from what was forecast in June, Meeks said one area they are looking at to reduce costs is the Edgenuity online learning program, which is estimated at an additional $400,000 for the second semester. He said he’s been in conversations with the other Northwest Colorado districts to see if they might be able to collaborate on something in-house.

To reach Kari Dequine Harden, call 970-871-4205, email or follow her on Twitter @kariharden.

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