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Dilemmas arise as enrollment drops in Westmoreland County school districts

Jamie Martines

Pennsylvania’s population is aging and shrinking, a two-decade trend that has resulted in enrollment drops at all but one of Westmoreland County’s 17 school districts.

But that doesn’t translate into proportionately lower expenses, experts say.

“Just because you have declining enrollment doesn’t mean you can save a couple million dollars here or there,” said Jonathan Johnson, senior policy analyst at the Center for Rural Pennsylvania, an agency providing policy research for the General Assembly.

School officials worry because the number of students impacts how much state funding districts receive. Fewer students could mean less money, and it’s not easy to adjust spending to compensate, officials say. While the state funding formula includes a provision that assures schools receive no less money than they did the previous year, even if enrollment declines, it adds nothing to offset rising expenses.

School districts’ fixed costs — staff salaries, pensions and health care, and maintaining facilities and equipment — are significant. When student numbers drop and buildings go unused, some districts might have to consider closing and consolidating buildings, or making other changes to be more efficient. In 2010, the Ligonier Valley School District merged two middle and high schools because enrollment dropped and costs rose.

The Franklin Regional School District, for example, is looking at how to manage a projected drop in the high school population while planning for what retired Carnegie Mellon University professor Shelby Stewman told the school board could be a “big turnaround” by 2040. Meanwhile, the district is studying options for renovating and modernizing its buildings, making investments that will fit future needs even more critical.

Enrollment changes also affect a district’s human resources, said Michael Griffith, senior policy analyst at the Education Commission of the States, a research organization.

“What you tend to see in these school districts, as the student population decreases, the cost of administration goes up,” Griffith said, adding that enrollment numbers decline across all grades, which makes it difficult to combine classes or redistribute teachers.

For example, a district’s loss of 70 students in one year might translate to a half-dozen students per grade. That may not be enough of a drop to combine classes and cut staffing without creating class sizes that are too big.

That delicate balancing act is playing out in the Jeannette City School District, which has experienced one of the highest rates of declining enrollment in the county over the past decade. The district has had to make cuts to language, business and consumer science classes, Superintendent Matthew Hutcheson said.

Despite those challenges, Hutcheson is optimistic that student numbers will start rising in the near future. The kindergarten class has only two fewer students than the 2006 class, and grades one through six have a combined 51 fewer students than in 2006. In recent years, the district has expanded full-day kindergarten and learning support classes.

“With the elementary numbers, we’re in a position that if you look at it, we’re starting to work toward that growing trend,” Hutcheson said.

Norwin School District is the only Westmoreland district to maintain steady enrollment from 2005 to 2015, according to the most recent data available from the Pennsylvania Department of Education. Commercial growth and new housing developments, combined with easy access to Pittsburgh, has helped the community attract new families, said Superintendent Bill Kerr.

But even Norwin must keep an eye on enrollment. If more students move into the district, administrators may have to consider adjusting school boundary areas or reconfiguring classes to make sure class sizes stay small, Kerr said.

The challenge of meeting fixed costs is an issue as well.

“It is true that we are facing the very same challenges and struggles with balancing budgets,” Kerr said, citing pensions and employee health care costs as factors that strain the district’s budget.

Jamie Martines is a staff writer at the Tribune-Review. Reach her at 724-850-2867 or at [email protected].


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