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Wrench in the works: Haywood Schools grapple with enrollment wildcard

fr schoolsupersHaywood School Superintendent Anne Garrett came up with a novel approach for predicting how many students a new charter school will siphon out of the public school system.

She’s going with zero.

In reality, that simply won’t be the case. But Garrett needed a placeholder as she went through the annual acrobatics of parceling out teachers to each of Haywood’s 15 schools for the coming year.

After weeks of moving the chips around the board, highly anticipated memos were sent to principals this week telling them how many teachers they would likely have for each grade when doors open in August.

Guesswork goes with the territory, but this year, it’s more like flying blind.

Garrett has no way to wager how many students will give the new charter school a whirl, what grades they’d come out of or from what schools.

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So zero seemed as good a bet as any.

“We just don’t know,” Garrett said. “We don’t know what impact the charter school will have on us, so there is a variable that we can’t predict.”

With the students, of course, go the dollars. Haywood schools will lose $7,000 in state and county funding for every student that defects to the charter school. That money will be sent to the charter school instead.

If 200 students leave Haywood schools for the charter, it’s a $1.4 million blow.

“While I am not excited about a Haywood student leaving and going to a charter that has yet to be seen how they will perform compared to Haywood County Schools, I understand, although I may be unhappy about it, that the money would follow that child,” Assistant Superintendent Bill Nolte said.


Zeroing in

Shining Rock Classical Academy, the new charter school projected to open in August, is banking on about 325 students in kindergarten through sixth grade.

And so far, that’s how many have expressed interest. How many follow through won’t be known until the first day of school, however.

In the meantime, Haywood County Schools is dying to know what schools those 325 kids go to now, and what grades they’re in. 

Ben Butler, the director of Shining Rock charter school, can sympathize.

“Certainly it is a challenging problem for the county school system,” Butler said. “It is certainly pressing for them to have that information. And we will try to provide that information as quickly as we can to the county.”

The problem is, he doesn’t know either.

“One thing that handcuffs us from being able to provide that sooner is we aren’t allowed to ask for that information,” Butler said.

To avoid any perception of favoritism, the preliminary sign-up form for prospective charter school students doesn’t ask for any information that might reveal race, socio-economic status or academic performance of the students. 

So for now, Butler knows only the age and grade of prospective students — he doesn’t know what school they’re at now, or whether they’re currently in a public school at all versus homeschool. That information won’t start to trickle in until mid-May, after Shining Rock holds a random drawing to decide who gets in.

At this point, the lottery is mostly a perfunctory exercise. Everyone who’s expressed interest so far will get a slot in the school if they indeed decide they want it, except for kindergarten. More than 65 kindergartners have signed up, but there’s room for only 47. The rest of the grades have around 40 prospective students each on the sign-up list, so there’s enough slots to go around, given two classes per grade, Butler said.

Sign-ups will continue in the countdown to August on a first-come, first-serve basis, filling whatever spots weren’t claimed in the initial lottery. 

Once the lottery happens, the school will send out formal enrollment paperwork to students who got slots. And only then can the school finally ask what school the students attend now, if anywhere.

Butler said he will share that data with Haywood School officials on a rolling basis — every day if they like. But there’s no telling when parents will actually turn their formal enrollment paper back in.

“Having the lottery and getting the information back from them are two different things,” Butler said.

Butler said he is confident that the school will reach its 300 target.

“We are really excited about our numbers. It is exceeding our expectations,” Butler said.

One thing Butler does know is that almost all those on the sign-up sheet live in Haywood — about 95 percent. Butler had guessed the school would pull about 30 percent of its student body from Jackson and Buncombe, but so far, early sign-ups don’t show that panning out.


Rounding out a school

Butler, like Haywood school leaders, has to go with his own assumptions when planning for next school year. Butler is planning for two classes per grade. The school has little support staff beyond core classroom teachers, however. There will be a PE teacher, art teacher, music teacher, two special needs teachers and shared teacher assistants for kindergarten and first grade. Aside from himself and a school secretary, that’s it.

It makes Butler’s hiring far simpler than Garrett’s.

Haywood County employs a range of support staff beyond the standard PE, art and music. Haywood Schools employ librarians, academically-gifted teachers, counselors, school cops, computer lab teachers, janitors, English-as-a-second-language teachers, reading coaches and one teacher assistant for each kindergarten and first-grade classroom.

The school system is already bracing to lose eight classroom teachers next year compared to this year. Charter school aside, enrollment has been declining in Haywood schools as a result of more homeschoolers and outmigration of families during the recession.

Haywood County commissioners are doing what they can to buffer the school system from the blowback of declining enrollment. The county recently pledged to grant the school system a one-year grace period before docking its per student funding should enrollment dip.

In the past, the county has adjusted the school budget in real time. If enrollment is down come August, the county downwardly revises the school’s appropriation. But it’s difficult for the school system to turn on a dime and abruptly cut its own budget once the school year starts.

This school year was a classic example. Enrollment was down 170 students over the year before. As a result, the school system unexpectedly lost $215,000 in county funding and $850,000 in state funding that’s tied to student population.

“In theory they won’t have those expenses if they don’t have those students,” Commissioner Mark Swanger said.

But that’s only in theory.

“That is not a completely accurate assessment. There are some costs a school system has regardless of the number of students,” Swanger said.

The decline in students is rarely a tidy affair. If a whole classroom of fourth-graders at the same school disappeared at once, the school system could jettison a teacher. But realistically, it’s a few students here and a few students there.

Charter school proponents are quick to point out that charters don’t technically take money from public schools. Charter schools capture the share of funding for educating a particular child. If they get the child, they get the money.

The traditional public school system doesn’t need the money attached to that student since he or she is no longer on their rolls.

But that’s assuming fewer students actually translate to lower costs.

“The school system doesn’t have time to react to the change in the enrollment pattern,” said Matt Ellinwood, an education policy analyst with the N.C. Justice Center in Raleigh

“To be fair, the funding pressures that come with opening a charter school in a rural area are much greater,” Ellinwood said. “Yes you have one less child to educate so that should cut down on your costs, but you have all these fixed costs.”

In school systems like Haywood with only 7,400 students, it’s difficult to handle the loss of more than 300 students. 

The numbers game is nothing new for the school system, however.

“Every year principals gain or lose teacher positions because enrollment shifts occur,” Nolte said.

It’s always a moving target in the countdown to the first day. And in rare cases, schools are making final teacher adjustments once the school year starts.

“We have had 100-student swings many times. We’ve gained 100 students in a year or lost 100 students in a year,” Nolte said.

“This year there is just a different reason for the potential enrollment changes with the charter,” Nolte said.

It could be the biggest bombshell yet for Haywood’s declining public school population. 

Or, it could be a mere hand grenade.

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