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Fewer students = less money

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By John Foster

It’s a mistake, but this Centerfield Elementary teacher doesn’t mind.

As Nicole Robison gathers her second-grade class on an 8-by-12 rug for a lesson on plants, the group takes up barely half. The group looks small enough to catch in a butterfly net.

It’s the smallest class she’s ever had, 17 students in all, and half the time she has a special needs teacher in the classroom with her. She is able to conference with her students more on their reading and writing, and classroom management is eased as well.

Next door, teacher Marcia Rowe and instructional assistant Karen Todd have the chance to break the class into a group of seven and a group of 10 to work math problems.

And how exactly does this relate to the national economic picture?

Enrollment in Oldham County Schools increased by the smallest amount in a decade this year, with only 34 additional students in a district that usually increases by several hundred. Last September, the board reported an increase of more than 300 students, which was fewer than expected then.

Oldham County Schools Director of Pupil Personnel Michael Williams said slowdown in growth is likely attributable to the national economic woes reported in the headlines every day.

With this unexpected slowdown, Williams projected 391 more students to be in Oldham County Schools than actually came over the summer. While this is still 96 percent accurate, that discrepancy does manifest itself in the $102.9 million budget passed at a board meeting Sept. 29.

On the positive side, Superintendent Paul Upchurch said, are smaller class sizes in some schools across the district because the board hired about seven teachers more than they would have otherwise.

Centerfield Elementary may be have been affected the most, with 101 students fewer than projected, according to enrollment documents. Principal Diane Morgan said they have two more teachers than they would otherwise, making most classes below 20 students instead of mid-20s.

The negative side is that those seven teachers do cost money, about $300,000 worth, Upchurch said. But he’s not going to lay off teachers already entrenched in the classroom.

Instead, Oldham County Schools Treasurer Chuck Littrell said, the money will have to come out of the 6.7 percent contingency fund built into the budget, as the school district will probably receive at least $200,000 less from the state than expected.

That money won’t be coming now, due to having fewer students.

The school board budgeted to receive $35.8 million from the state. Littrell said he will know within the next month how much they will receive, but it is difficult to guess due a constantly changing formula to distribute funds.

He does know that having about 400 fewer students than expected will have an effect.

He said the budget is in good shape for this year, and likely several years to come, but some changes will be necessary if the flood of new students Oldham County schools have accepted every year for the last few decades slows to a trickle.

That’s because the state Department of Education’s formula for distributing money to school districts gives less money to affluent districts like Oldham County, Littrell said. In fact, in years past, Oldham County received less funding per student than all but two of the 173 districts in the state.

While Jefferson County receives about $10,000 per student from the state, Oldham County only receives about $6,000, he said.

To compensate for that discrepancy, Oldham County has relied on property growth to produce tax revenue. If that growth doesn’t return within the next five years or so, the school district will have to cut back somewhere, he said.

Until that time, the district will make financial decisions on a year-to-year basis, he said.

At least for this year, it has been positive for Morgan’s teachers at Centerfield, allowing for more one-on-one time with each student, and creating quieter halls and shorter bus lines. But Morgan doesn’t plan on getting used to it.

“We realize this is a luxury we will probably only enjoy this year,” she said, “but it is a very positive change for us.”

E-mail us about this story at: jfoster@oldhamera.com.