Schools ride an attendance — and funding — roller coaster

The Great Recession might be history. But not in Idaho Falls kindergarten classrooms.

In this Eastern Idaho school district, kindergarten enrollment dropped by 75 to 100 students this year. And that all goes back to the downturn, says Carrie Smith, Idaho Falls’ human resources and finance director. Couples were more reluctant about starting a family or having another child, and Idaho Falls noticed the difference this year.

For school districts and charter schools, fluctuating student numbers are more than just a curiosity. State funding hangs in the balance.

And sometimes, a one-year blip can make a big difference.

How the math works

Idaho carves up its K-12 dollars based on a school’s average daily attendance. The number is just what the name suggests: It’s an average of the number of students who walk through the door. It’s a function of student headcount, but also absenteeism — so treacherous winter travel or a flu outbreak can affect the numbers. Funding for 2016-17 is based on fall ADA numbers.

The days of average daily attendance may be numbered, however. In 2013, Gov. Butch Otter’s education task force recommended a shift to an enrollment-based funding formula. Advocates say an enrollment model better aligns with mastery-based learning, which moves students through the school system based on command of a subject, rather than seat time. But if schools are funded based on student enrollment — and not lower daily attendance figures — the state could be forced to pay out an additional $57 million to $71 million.

This average daily attendance is then translated into state “support units.” That’s the funding mechanism that pays, roughly speaking, for a school classroom. On average, each support unit is worth $94,100 in state funding.

In 2016-17; 105 districts and charters saw their ADA increase, or hold steady. ADA numbers decreased in 59 districts and charters.

And that poses a problem. On the one hand, districts and charters are still on the hook to provide the same basic level of services, regardless of what happens with student headcount. On the other hand, some education leaders and legislators argue that dollars should follow students as they move from one school to another.

Two case studies

So, what happens when ADA decreases? Again, let’s look at Idaho Falls.

The district’s ADA dropped by 99 students in 2016-17 — largely but not exclusively because of the decrease in kindergarten students. The district absorbed a loss of about $200,000 in 2016-17, Smith said.

But things will get worse in 2017-18, as a relatively small kindergarten class becomes a smaller first-grade class. For funding purposes, full-day first-grade students are “worth” twice as much as half-day kindergarten students. Anticipating a funding hit of up to $500,000, Idaho Falls will offset some of the loss by eliminating four elementary teaching positions. Two first-grade teachers’ jobs will be cut through attrition, Smith said.

No district experienced a bigger loss in ADA numbers than Nampa: a decrease of 378 students.

The district could see it coming, however. The opening of the Gem Prep Charter School and the expansion of the Idaho Arts Charter School accounted for the decrease.

But that decrease in student numbers carried a significant cost: roughly $2 million. That forced Nampa to hold the line. The district didn’t have to cut academic programs — but by the same token, the district couldn’t afford to add programs either. The district also eliminated about 20 teaching positions.

“We did not fire any teachers, we simply did not hire as many new teachers as we would have liked,” district spokeswoman Kathleen Tuck said.

Small schools, big fluctuations

Relatively speaking, the declining ADA numbers in Idaho Falls and Nampa were less than dramatic — reductions of 1 percent and 2.7 percent, respectively.

The numbers can be more volatile in smaller districts, where the loss of a handful of students can make a big difference:

  • The Camas County School District’s ADA fell from 135 to 119 — an 11.6 percent decrease, and one of eight double-digit drops in districts and charters across the state. A slow economy has hurt, and second- and third-generation farm families simply aren’t sending as many kids to the schools. But Superintendent Jim Cobble sees some hope; some elementary grades have 14 to 17 kids, where the high school grades are stuck in the single digits. If these elementary students stick around, the ADA should rebound.
  • At the Idaho Science and Technology Charter School in Blackfoot, a 14.4 percent drop in ADA comes down to fundamental math. The school serves fourth- through eighth-graders, and this year it had fewer incoming fourth-graders than it had graduating eighth-graders. Based on the lottery this spring, Director Tami Dortch expects 2017-18 numbers to rebound, and exceed its ADA from 2015-16. “The decrease in ADA this year is simply a one-year anomaly,” she said.
  • The Preston School District tells a similar story. The graduating class of 2016 was the largest in district history. The incoming class of first-graders was among the smallest in district history. The resulting 2.4 percent reduction in ADA didn’t force Preston to scrap any programs, but the district had to shuffle some staffers around, Superintendent Marc Gee said.

Watching and waiting

Districts and charters aren’t completely at the mercy of ADA numbers — and their tendency to fluctuate. When ADA drops by more than 3 percent, districts can receive state funding based on their previous year’s allocation, keeping them more or less whole for a year. Camas County is among 11 districts that are receiving state funding based on 2105-16 ADA.

But that doesn’t mean districts aren’t watching their student numbers closely. In Cobble’s case, that means finding some comfort in Camas County’s increased elementary school enrollment. In Smith’s case, that means watching residential development within the Idaho Falls district, and trying to project kindergarten enrollment for 2017-18.

It’s an imprecise science; school administrators never really know what to expect until the new kindergartners stroll in the door in the fall. Idaho Falls’ numbers might not rebound all the way back to pre-recession levels, but Smith says kindergarten enrollment could increase by about 50 students. “Right now it’s looking like a positive trend.”

Idaho Education News data analyst Randy Schrader contributed to this report.

Click here to download ADA comparisons from 2015-16 and 2016-17, or download historic numbers dating back to 2003-04. And click here to read more about a possible shift to enrollment-based funding.

Kevin Richert

Kevin Richert

Senior reporter and blogger Kevin Richert specializes in education politics and education policy. He has more than 30 years of experience in Idaho journalism. He is a frequent guest on "Idaho Reports" on Idaho Public Television and "Idaho Matters" on Boise State Public Radio. Follow Kevin on Twitter: @KevinRichert. He can be reached at [email protected]

Get EdNews in your inbox

Weekly round up every Friday