DECLINING ENROLLMENTS IS BIG ISSUE

October 12, 2001 11:00 pm
WORRIES ABOUT THE FUTURE: Elgin High School teacher Evelyn Spikes, second from right, worries about the effects of the district's shrinking student base. (The Observer/DICK MASON).
WORRIES ABOUT THE FUTURE: Elgin High School teacher Evelyn Spikes, second from right, worries about the effects of the district's shrinking student base. (The Observer/DICK MASON).

The Observer continues a series of stories today on how finances and declining enrollment are making it difficult for some rural schools in Oregon to stay open.

By Dick Mason

Observer Staff Writer

Elgin High School English teacher Evelyn Spikes does not like to dwell on what the future may hold. Declining enrollment has taken a tremendous toll in the Elgin School District over the past seven years.

I dont know what is going to happen. It is scary, said Spikes, who has taught at EHS for 25 years.

About seven years ago the Elgin School District had a stable enrollment of between 525 and 550 students. Today the number is down to about 455 and falling. The school district has lost 23 students in the past two years.

The loss is having a tremendous effect on the resources the school district can provide students. School districts receive about $5,000 per student.

Since the 1994-95 school year, the Elgin School District has had to cut about 10 full-time teaching positions. The district had to cut back substantially programs like talented and gifted, counseling, music and art.

At EHS the school district is making up for its loss of teachers by bringing in retired educators, including Spikes. They are teaching English, woodshop and math.

Declining enrollment is also having a significant effect at Stella Mayfield School, Elgins elementary school.

Declining enrollment has boosted the average class size from the 22-25 range to 26-28.

It is a similar story in other Northeast Oregon communities, whose fates are tied to the timber industry.

Ed Schumacher, superintendent of the Union-Baker Education Service District, said that when enrollment first declines, classes get smaller because the school has the same number of teachers and fewer

students.

Parents are happy with the smaller classes, Schumacher said. But once enrollment falls below a certain level though, teaching positions must be cut. Class sizes

suddenly increase dramatically and the effect of falling enrollment is

felt.

You get mass discontent,

Schumacher said. At Stella Mayfield, for example, class sizes jumped from 18 to 26-28 students.

The Enterprise School Board cut 10 full-time teaching positions last spring, almost all of which were elementary school positions. The average class size at Enterprise Elementary has jumped from 13-14 students per class to 20-22.

Before, it was wonderful. We had very small classes. Children do well in small classes, Superintendent Bill Eggers said. The Enterprise cuts were necessary because its grade school has lost 43 elementary school students from January through June.

Eggers attributes the enrollment decline to lumber mill closures in Wallowa County. Three mills have closed in Wallowa County since 1994.

In the La Grande School District, the maximum class size caps are 20 for students in kindergarten and first grade, 25 for second-graders and 27 for students in third through sixth grade. But maintaining class size objectives is becoming increasingly difficult because of La Grandes falling enrollment, said Jay Rowell, the La Grande School Districts personnel and curriculum director.

Since the 1992-93 school year, enrollment has fallen from 2,919 to 2,340 students. The school district now has about 21 fewer full-time teachers as a result.

Despite the enrollment drop, the school district has been able to maintain most of its programs. Its grade schools, for example, still have music, physical education, reading, library media specialists and counselors.

We are very fortunate to have these programs. Many other schools do not, Rowell said.

La Grande High School principal Doug Potter said that the school district now faces a dilemma. The district can cut a little from several programs or cut entire programs and allow the others to continue operating strongly.

When you cut a little bit of everything, it can lead to mediocrity, Potter said.

Monday: Other small school districts deal with cutbacks.