When Centennial School District R-1 resumes classes on Wednesday, the student population will have plummeted from where it was a year ago.
The number of children enrolled in the San Luis Valley district was 122 as of Monday, down from 191 at the start of the last academic year.
The 36% decrease is preliminary, Superintendent Toby Melster said, but if the number of students holds steady at this year’s October count date, the Southern Colorado district could stand to lose half a million dollars in state funding. It’d be a heavy hit for a small school system that needs those dollars for “anything and everything,” Melster said, including curriculum, upkeep of the school building, staff compensation and electricity.
The district doesn’t know why its student enrollment numbers have tumbled, but a big force could be at play: the coronavirus pandemic. With it comes the prospect of families pursuing homeschooling, opting to enroll in an online school or heading to another district through outside enrollment.
The stakes are high for Centennial. If its enrollment doesn’t grow, Melster doesn’t know how he will make up the hundreds of thousands of dollars in lost state funding. “The only way I get that per-pupil funding is if I have that body in the building,” he said on Monday.
Gov. Jared Polis, education advocates and some state lawmakers anticipate a spike in families using Colorado’s open-enrollment process, which allows them to join any school district in the state. If Polis’ prediction comes true with more parents moving their children into other districts — either for better remote learning opportunities or seeking a different approach to education amid the pandemic — Colorado’s process for funding schools could be thrown into disarray.
Geography has typically limited students from living in one part of the state and enrolling in a school district in another. A commute from, say, to Aspen from Thornton would be unrealistic.
But remote learning has eliminated that barrier.
“Some people in areas where schools are going back aren’t ready to go back,” Polis said at a news conference last week. “And they are not limited, in Colorado, to their district’s online program. They can choose any online program in our state. They can choose a different district’s online program. They can enroll in online charter schools that have been operating online long before the coronavirus pandemic.”
All the shuffling could potentially cause districts further financial distress at a time when they’re already facing rising costs because of the coronavirus and bracing for funding cuts because of the economic effects of the pandemic.