Open enrollment out of Prior Lake-Savage Area Schools is up, particularly among kindergartners, according to the official enrollment count for the school year presented to the School Board on Monday.
The numbers, a snapshot from Oct. 1, also confirm officials’ previous warnings that enrollment is up overall, reaching 8,838 students, but rose less than expected for the year’s budget. Business Services Executive Director Julie Cink said that gap means about $2 million less in state funding than planned.
“It’s going to be a chunk of change,” Cink said. “It’s a big hit to our budget, but we do have fund balance, and that’s why we are a district that makes sure we have fund balance.”
Open enrollment both in and out of the district has increased slightly in the past few years, according to the district. More than 1,100 students came in from other districts, or about one in eight students. On the other hand, 725 left for elsewhere, up from 702 last year.
The increased loss appears to come from kindergarten: 76 kindergarten students open enrolled in public school districts besides Prior Lake-Savage. That’s up from 59 kindergartners in 2017-2018 and 51 kindergartners last year.
Cink said she couldn’t fully explain the bump based on residential growth, interest rates and other data points. The 8,838 figure is up from the 8,767 students enrolled last year and 150 fewer than in the budget.
“We’re 150 kids short of what I budgeted, first year ever,” Cink said. “There isn’t anything that would have said or given us a clue that this would have dropped this significantly this year.”
The data compare Oct. 1 enrollment for the last three school years by school, grade, open enrollment in and out, and the number of students attending home and private school.
The students at Bridges Area Learning Center aren’t included because of the program’s flexible attendance.
October data is just one snapshot of enrollment picture across the year, but the state uses the count to allocate per-student money. Enrollment numbers earlier in the year are generally higher than the end of year counts, Cink said.
Cink said the district was fortunate to have the consistent boost of open enrollment coming into the district.
“It’s important for us to have open enrolled — in any district,” Cink said. “If you look at any district that’s declining enrollment or even stagnant enrollment, financially, you can’t survive on the 2% revenue from the state. It doesn’t cover our costs.”
Outside students join the district even as it enters its fourth year of capping open enrollment. Since Dec. 2016 the district has limited new open enrollment to the district at 75 kindergartners and 1% of total enrollment at each grade level. The cap applies to new open enrollment only; students who joined a year or more ago don’t count against it.
This year marks the first year that enrollment numbers have varied from the demographics report used by the district to predict growth before the 2017 referendum.
The report was created by Hazel Reinhardt, an independent demographer, and estimated enrollment from 2016 to 2027. Reinhardt’s prediction for this year’s resident enrollment — not including the Bridges students — was for somewhere between 7,720 and 8,003 students, depending on kindergarten and migration trends. Actual resident enrollment was 7,617.
Open enrollment has long been a divisive issue in the district, particularly following the passage of a $109.3 million referendum in November 2017. The referendum was intended to pay for growing overcrowded schools.
Board members and district families have split on the issue. Some push for greater limits on open enrollment and questioning whether resident students get pushed to different schools because of the practice. Other members and Cink have said the district benefits from letting in outside students but doesn’t favor them over residents.