MUSCATINE — The enrollment trend since 2012-13 academic year has been down and projections by both the state and district do not forecast that drop bottoming out in the next four school years.
“When you think about enrollment you immediately go to its effect on resources and money the state is going to fund the schools with,” Superintendent Jerry Riibe said pointing to these numbers in his presentation Monday night.
The district's enrollment reached its peak at 5,344 in the 2013-14 school year. This year, enrollment is down to 4,935, a decrease of almost 8 percent in half a decade. Muscatine County's birth rates have similarly been on the decline. In 2010, there were 572 births, in 2015 there were 524.
Focusing on quality
“The one thing I want to really make a strong case for is that we are not in crisis. We have declining enrollment, but that does not mean that we are in jeopardy. We are financially stable. We are in a place where we can make decisions,” Riibe said.
Riibe listed accomplishments in the district, including being in the top five in the state in growth on the state literacy test, highest eighth grade reading proficiency recorded on the Iowa Assessment and AP scores out ranking the state and national average.
“We can go on and on with these things, but it's just important to remember that we are a progressive and moving-forward district,” Riibe said. “Even though our numbers are not increasing, the quality of our program has not suffered. But with all of that said, there are some things in this picture that we need to remember as we make decisions.”
The first consideration was that the district needed to retain quality staff and programs.
"If we lose quality staff, the wheels get wobbly fast,” Riibe said. “We have to make sure that our staff understands that we are going to have a plan to maintain our stability and that we are going to maintain our program improvements. We need to make sure that our families, those people that consider moving to Muscatine recognize that this is going to be a place that is of quality.”
Being able to adapt
The district receives money for each student enrolled. As enrollment goes down, the district will consequently receive less. Riibe said that moving forward, the district will have to “connect fixed costs to revenues.”
“There is no half way to sustain the status quo,” Riibe said. “If you aren't nimble, if you don't change, if you don't adapt, it's going to be very difficult to keep quality programs as is.”
He explained that an emphasis will need to be placed on adapting quickly to the changing needs of the district. Even though Riibe said the district is not in crisis, the longer they wait to make decisions, the more pressure they will be under to do so.
"We could do nothing this year because of all the work that Tom (Anderson the director of finance and budget) has done,” Riibe said. “We could get by a year. We could maybe get by two years. But then all of a sudden, we've spent the reserve, and we're in a hole, and we don't have some of the options that we'd like to have.”
In the next six months, Riibe said that the district needs to figure out what it will do about the unequal distribution of students in the elementary schools.
“We've got some elementary buildings that are going to have fewer kids,” Riibe said. “We have to figure out how we are going to approach that.”
While schools like McKinley have 421 students for the 2018-19 school year, schools like Madison and Mulberry had 226 and 222 students respectively.
On Thursday, the Muscatine Schools district office will be holding this year's Kindergarten Roundup. This is one of the school's chances to get an idea of the intake for next years class of kindergarteners.
"It's our attempt to get all of the kids pre-registered into kindergarten so we know how many kindergartners are registered in the fall," said Debi Welk, early childhood coordinator. "We are interested in knowing how many children come from each section of town and what schools they will be going to."
Welk explained that the roundup is one of several measures used to get a sense of how large the class of students will be. She said that they are predicting 311 kindergarteners will sign up. Some will have been in the pre-k programming. But others will be fresh to the district.
Normally students will attend the elementary school that is closest to their residence. But the district is implementing incentives that will build the number of students in schools with low numbers.
"We are offering at Mulberry and Colorado (Elementaries) wrap around programming," Welk said. She explained that these schools will have a group breakfasts between 7 and 8 a.m. and a post-school daycare service from 3 to 5:30 p.m.
"We want to see whether or not there will be any interest in those kinds of wrap-around services," Welk said.
Riibe said he has met with the elementary principals and they are considering multi-age classrooms and offering wrap-around services to help with the organization and appeal of the elementary schools.
In the next few years, Riibe said that board will have to make a decisions about Central Middle School, built 80 years ago.
“Is Central Middle School still a viable educational facility?” Riibe asked. “If it isn’t, we need to look at our options.”
One approach to this that Riibe has spoken about before was opening an Early Childhood Center that would absorb some of the population from the elementary schools and fill that additional space with sixth graders. This would leave only seventh and eighth grade in the middle schools, a number that Riibe said could fit in West Middle School.
The long-term decisions that have to be made over the next 10 years, revolve around finding the plateau for enrollment and figuring out what to do with the aging buildings.
“The district is going to have to decide which buildings to replace, how do we replace them, where do we replace them, and what will they look like when we replace them,” Riibe said.
Keeping with the thesis that the district is not in crisis, Riibe ended his presentation saying that while the district faces challenges, planning to solve them now will put the district in a better place in the decades to come.
“But again, those conversations need to happen at a time when you are not under the hammer when we have to do something,” Riibe said. “If you have time, if you have years to plan for that, I think this district can really place itself well going into the decade after that 10 years. But it will take careful planning and stewardship over the next decade to get to that long range solution.”