The Prior Lake-Savage Area Schools Board is entertaining the idea of budget cuts and changing its open enrollment limits to make up for what district officials estimate will be a $2 million gap in the budget.
“What I hear all the way around the table is that everything’s on the table,” member Johnathan Drewes said during the board’s Monday work session.
This year’s budget, which was proposed in June and will be finalized following a board vote on Dec. 9, included the assumption that enrollment would increase by about 250 students and bring in about $3 million more to the district from state per-student aid.
Instead, the district’s Oct. 1 student count showed total enrollment reached 8,838 students — a growth of about 110 students — as fewer resident students enrolled in the district than anticipated. Business Services Executive Director Julie Cink said the increase could shrink even more by the end of the year.
District administrators suggested removing the open enrollment cap, which restricts the number of newly enrolled out-of-district students at 1% of most grades’ resident population, and considering budget cuts to keep the district’s fund balance within roughly 10% of its expenditures.
If enrollment continues to grow by a more conservative 125 students a year, the district’s fund balance would fall below 8% of its expenditures by the 2021-2022 school year, Cink said.
The board ultimately rejected the idea of limitless open enrollment, but the suggestion reopened a longstanding argument among board members over what role open enrollment should play in balancing the district’s capacity and financial concerns.
Superintendent Teri Staloch said the idea was based on a recognition that the district has open space for students that isn’t yet filled.
“We have classrooms with open seats in them. It costs us just as much to run that building without those seats full as with those seats full,” board member Michael Nelson said. “Part of the role of open enrollment is an efficient operating system.”
Nelson supported increased open enrollment, arguing more students and more money would let the district create smaller class sizes with additional staff and offer more specialized programming. But other members said open enrollment benefits were overstated.
“The whole extra space and extra programs is somewhat propagandist and is not exactly substantive to how open enrollment is supposed to work,” Mary Frantz said.
Frantz said any open enrollment calculation needed to balance the district’s financial situation with the educational impact on current students of having fuller or smaller class sizes. She said if the educational impact isn’t considered, the district will lose more families.
“It’s one thing to say that we may not see the enrollment go the way we wanted or the way we needed for budget,” Frantz said. “It’s another if we see that we’re losing people. That’s something that’s almost 100% within our control based on how we handle this.”
Some district families said increasing open enrollment would be a bitter pill if resident transfers weren’t given greater priority. The board’s approval of new elementary school boundaries moved many students from their neighborhood schools to other buildings.
The district said this move was to make sure growth was directed to buildings with capacity, but several parents passionately opposed the changes.
Becky Shultz, whose children will move from their neighborhood at Jeffers Pond Elementary School next year under the boundary changes, said seeing open-enrolled students fill that school to help the district’s finances was difficult to hear.
“We live so close to the school, and we’ve been ousted for their convenience,” Shultz said.