By Ellen Thompson/Havre Daily Newsfirstname.lastname@example.org
A year after the Havre Public Schools superintendent declared enrollment stabilized, the school district has lost 77 students, which could cause HPS's state funding to drop $325,000 next year.
This month's count showed 56 fewer students in the elementary school district, which includes Havre Middle School, and 11 fewer at Havre High School. The total enrollment for Havre schools was 1,928.
An average of two enrollment counts, one in October and another in February, will be the official number the state uses to allocate funds to the district.
In the past, a decrease in enrollment has meant that the schools ask taxpayers for more support. That cannot happen this year, Superintendent Kirk Miller said today.
"Currently the elementary and high school districts are near the 100 percent budget mark, close to the (tax) cap. Tax increases are not an option," he said.
This month's figure is "a heads-up," board member Kathie Newell said. "We've had to make tough decisions before. When the time comes, there will be a lot of decisions and a lot of thinking outside the box before we cut academic programs or positions."
This time last year, Miller said he was "cautiously optimistic" that enrollment had stabilized. In February, when enrollment had increased by five students, Miller said, "Our enrollment has stabilized. I believe that means our economy in Havre has stabilized also. People are staying here."
The district's optimism was short-lived.
"At that time, we were hoping that the economy was stabilizing in the community and that families were going to stay put. What we found is that only held for one year," Miller said. "A benefit last year was that the Border Patrol increased their staffing significantly. ... We've had other people leave."
Miller said this year's loss was "in the range of what we expected. We were looking at down 50 to 80 based on graduating senior class (size) and the entering kindergarten class (size). A larger senior class graduated."
School district administrators are waiting until they see the February enrollment count before they firm up the estimate of lost state revenue. They also will be watching for developments in the courts and the Legislature that might offset the revenue loss, HPS director of operations Ric Floren said.
The Montana Supreme Court will begin hearing arguments in a school funding lawsuit on Oct. 20, two months before the Legislature begins its session.
The lawsuit claims that Montana does not fund its schools adequately or fairly. The plaintiffs demand that the state increase funding. Plaintiffs also asked that a decision be reached before the Legislature meets in January.
This year Montana is looking at a possible budget surplus, and both gubernatorial candidates have mentioned putting that money toward education.
Miller has been superintendent of Havre Public Schools for nine years, and eight of the nine he has seen falling enrollment. There has been an overall decrease of 25 percent in nine years, he said.
"It is a reflection of what's happening in our economy in north-central and eastern Montana, where people are moving to other parts of our state and out of the state," Miller said.