Although it can’t officially attribute the decrease to the pandemic, Rochester Public Schools has seen a significant drop in enrollment this fall.
Students have left the district for a number of reasons: home-schooling, other districts, and private education among them. Regardless of the reason, the decrease will have significant financial ramifications, as districts receive funding based on student enrollment.
As of Oct. 1, RPS reported a total enrollment of 17,635. That's 661 fewer students than the enrollment at the same time last year. It’s also 881 students shy of what the district projected it would have this year.
Although this year's enrollment was less than anticipated, the district had seen growth in preceding years. This year's number is just a few students different than the enrollment recorded in 2016.
According to Heather Nessler, executive director of communications for RPS, the district will have approximately $6.5 million less than what it budgeted for as a result of the dip in enrollment. She said the district doesn’t have any "significant cuts" planned.
“We are always reviewing our operations and saving where we can, when we can,” Nessler said via email. “Part of this discussion has been foreshadowed for several years. When we passed an operating referendum, we shared then that the district would need to make reductions to our budget in or around the year 2020/2021.”
The single largest reason for the decrease was students moving to other Minnesota districts, totaling 222. There were 188 who moved out of the state or country. There were 117 who left for private schools, 111 who left for home-schooling, and 52 who open-enrolled in other districts. Nessler said they can only speculate why so many families withdrew from the district.
"The global health pandemic has impacted individuals, businesses, schools…essentially our whole world is impacted," Nessler said.
The pandemic has not affected all school districts the same. Plainview-Elgin-Millville’s enrollment is nearly the same as it was last year, with a slight increase.
Pine Island has had an enrollment increase of 103 students, which Superintendent Tammy Champa attributes to a growing district in general. Of that increase, 19 students open-enrolled from other districts.
According to a presentation at Monday’s school board meeting, Stewartville’s enrollment is within 10 students of last year’s count and still higher than the two years before that.
In spite of that apparent consistency, there have been some abnormalities attributable to the unusual school year. For example, the district had 29 students leave for home-schooling.
“That’s abnormal,” Superintendent Belinda Selfors said. "The majority of the families who responded to us in requesting that home-school application indicated that they were looking to provide some sort of stability for their children."
Similar to Rochester, Austin Public Schools also has had a dip in enrollment this year. Superintendent David Krenz said the district's enrollment decreased by nearly 200 students since the year before.
Overall, Austin has a little more than 5,000 students. Although Austin's enrollment drop is smaller than that of Rochester, it still represents a funding loss for the district.
"It's well over a $2 million impact on our budget," Krenz said. "When you build a budget where you anticipate a little bit of growth and then you see a large decrease, that hurts."