Decline in enrollment across Wisconsin could change funding for school districts

LA CROSSE, Wis. (WKBT)–  New data from the Department of Public Instruction shows a three percent drop in enrollment for schools across Wisconsin. That change in headcount could mean more or less funding for your child’s school district.

Data released this week by the DPI shows the largest decline across the state is with 4k/ preschool special education and kindergarten. Neither are required in Wisconsin.

“Parents did have the option of holding their students back this fall or choosing not to sign up for 4k. Obviously, more of them did in comparison to past years,” said Dan Bush, school financial services director for the DPI.

Parents might have been concerned about the mode that their students would be learning in.

‘It’s not something that should surprise anyone,” Bush said.

The Department of Public Instruction said this is the first look at public enrollment data. More complete data including private schools and homeschool enrollment have later deadlines.

La Crosse, which started all virtual, has 10.61% less students rolled in 4k and pre-k special education. There’s also a 7.71% drop in kindergarten enrollment. Grades 1 through 12 saw a 1.78% decline in headcount.

The district’s superintendent said some families might have enrolled if classes were in person.

“So we anticipate many of those families to come back to the school district once things have calmed down with COVID-19,” said Aaron Engel, superintendent for the La Crosse School District.

But the decline in enrollment overall is an issue La Crosse has been facing for years. Part of the reason why might be bigger graduating classes.

% Change from 2017 to 2018
% Change from 2018 to 2019
% Change from 2019 to 2020
La Crosse 4K/PK Spec Ed 1.58% -1.77% -10.61%
La Crosse Kindergarten -6.46% 1.11% -7.71%
La Crosse Grades 1 – 12 0.12% -3.67% -1.78%
La Crosse District Total -0.26% -3.21% -2.81%

“That’s been a common theme across our state in both rural and urban areas,” Engel said.

Families might move where there’s more space to build or pursue open enrollment. Regardless of the reason why, the loss of students can impact the district financially.

“When we have fewer students, that is fewer dollars that we are allowed to levy to fund our schools and so when we see a decline in enrollment, we also have to be planning for reductions in our workforce and overhead in order to keep up with that change,” Engel aid.

The district will still get a small increase in general aid. But the decline in students this year will likely mean the revenue limit will decline again next year. However, since it is under an operational referendum, the district said it is unlikely to go to another referendum until 2022.