Twin Oaks Middle School

Students fill the halls during a passing period at Twin Oaks Middle School.

A number that’s been circulating throughout the Prior Lake-Savage Area School District is 2,165.

That number reflects how many more students are expected to enroll in the next 10 years — and how many students the district is planning for, according to its website.

The number 2,165 is based, in part, on the work of demographic studies, and one that is often used for examination is a study by Hazel Reinhardt, an independent demographer, presented to the school board at the end of 2016.

The district has used Reinhardt’s report to plan ahead for the future, but the demographer said the district’s numbers are on the high end of her enrollment projections — and it’s not likely enrollment will reach the maximum projection.

Reinhardt’s name has surfaced and resurfaced with some frequency during school board meetings; her report has been used as evidence for both higher and lower enrollment projections in the future. How many students show up determines how much the district should build, and how much taxpayers should have to chip in to make it happen.

Her report is based on a number of factors that impact enrollment, such as District 719’s market share of school-age residents, the district enrollment history by grade, the eventual aging of the population, births and migration.

Reinhardt said each of her four possible 10-year resident enrollment projections is a valid projection. According to the report, depending on kindergarten levels and migration levels, resident enrollment — or enrollment for students who live in-district — can end up as low as 8,700 total students in 2026, or as high as 9,500 students. That’s the difference between 1,500 and 2,300 new kids added to the existing 7,200 resident students and 1,000 nonresident students.

How this shakes out all depends on what happens between now and then.

DEMOGRAPHER WEIGHS IN

The one person best able to determine which interpretation is correct could be Reinhardt herself.

In short: “This is a very tricky situation,” she said and the answer lies somewhere in the middle.

School board member Mary Frantz, in a few discussions with fellow board members on how the report should really be interpreted, was pushing for a more conservative estimate: 1,700 to 1,800 new enrollees. But shooting for the middle, Reinhardt said, isn’t necessarily the bulletproof approach to this problem. Each of the estimates, she said, is its own valid outcome, and the district has to prepare for the possibility of any of them coming true.

But she said there is a fairly good chance that 9,517 is a loftier projection than what may actually occur.

“There is a risk that the last five projection years would be too high,” she said of her report. “What I was trying to hint at here is that the population is going to be aging… We’re seeing that the incoming kindergarten classes are smaller than this year’s high school classes. In order to sustain that growth, you need a lot of new houses and new people.”

Reinhardt said it’s “probably not” likely that incoming enrollment will reach that maximum projection of 2,300 students.

That said, she added, you really never know what will happen until it actually happens. It might be better to build smaller schools and bank on the idea that growth will peter out and land somewhere in the middle range, or it might be best to build larger schools and fill in whatever gaps may occur with open enrollment. It really depends, Reinhardt said, on the district’s philosophy. Both options, she said, come with their own risks and rewards.

“What it comes down to are judgement calls of how optimistic you are, and what kind of strategy you want to use,” she said.

Prior Lake-Savage Area School District Director of Communications Kristi Mussman said the district is being conservative with its estimate, because district growth “continues to outpace our projections.” The estimate, she said, is based on “a demographic study coupled with enrollment history, a conservative view of incoming kindergartners more than five years out (because those children have not yet been born) and annually monitoring open enrollment.”

A note on the school district’s 10-year projections says it utilized the high kindergarten/high migration projection from Reinhardt’s report, plus estimates based on past enrollment growth, and assumes that open enrollment is closed for the 2017-18 school year.

“School districts have to do enrollment projections all the time — to estimate space needs, secure state funding, project future budget needs and project staffing needs,” she said in a statement. “It is not an exact science, but best practice is to base it on demographic studies and enrollment histories… Opinions can differ about the precise number, but everyone agrees we are faced with tremendous enrollment growth and we need to be ready for additional students.”

School Board Chairman Richard Wolf agreed the district’s estimate was “conservative,” and emphasized Reinhardt’s report was just one of many data points the district was using to create its projections.

“As an engineer, I know you have to look at multiple data points,” he said. Other data points, he said, included past enrollment, housing unit statistics and anecdotal knowledge, like the upcoming arrival of developments like Trillium Cove.

“Our projections have been outpaced by actual growth over the past several years,” he said. “There are no signs that growth is going to slow.”

Current updates on enrollment show around 8,500 students total, which includes resident and nonresident students. A few may drop off that total in the first few months of the school year, according to Executive Director of Business Services Julie Cink.

But there are unknowns. What makes the Prior Lake-Savage area’s projections so nebulous is the missing variable of the number of available lots within the district. The area isn’t quite approaching being totally built out yet, Reinhardt said. Without that ceiling, it’s harder to predict how many people will actually end up living in the district.

“That’s really one of the tricky things in a tricky area where there’s infinite amount of housing potential,” she said. “If you initially, by today’s standards, are overbuilding, will it necessarily be overbuilding in the future?”

Reporter

Hannah Jones is a Prior Lake American reporter who loves revealing the hidden worlds within a community, like trash collection and school board happenings. She is quiet, creative and unabashedly nerdy. She also likes to run, bake and watch James Bond.

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