As another school year looms, Prior Lake-Savage Area Schools’ residential enrollment is lower than expected, which could leave the district without more than $500,000 in state aid.

The shortfall comes after open enrollment both in and out of the district hit a record high last year, according to district data. Some School Board members this week wondered if they should change the open enrollment process, such as by making application decisions earlier in the year or adopting a long-term plan.

The board budgeted for 8,988 students this year and had enrolled 8,898 as of Monday, a difference of about 90 children, Superintendent Teri Staloch told the board. The greatest difference between enrollment projections and reality is in the elementary schools, where enrollment is 102 students short.

The kindergarten enrollment deficit, 53 fewer students, comes while there’s an open enrollment waiting list for the grade. There are currently 19 out-of-district children on the list.

“It’s a little confusing as to how that looks,” Board Chair Lee Shimek said. “We do need to talk about open enrollment and how we’re addressing that especially if our numbers are low.”

Resident families looking to enroll in the district can still do so at priorlake-savage.k12.mn.us/enroll. Applications for open enrollment for the 2019-2020 school year are also available.

The district is required by state law to accept open enrollment from other districts. For the last three years the district has limited the number of students it accepts, first by capping open enrollment by grade level at 1% of resident enrollment and then by setting an enrollment limit of 75 kindergartners for each year.

Staloch and District Business Services Executive Director Julie Cink said the district has never filled grade levels to their open enrollment limits since the caps were set. This year, the district may come close. There are only a total of 35 spots left for open enrollment students.

The district receives at least $6,438 in state aid per pupil, though some qualify for more based on characteristics like speaking English as a second language. At minimum, 90 fewer students would mean $579,420 less in state contributions than expected.

“There’s a balance there,” Shimek said in an interview. “We know that financially it’s important that we get those students, but we’re also not going to overcrowd our schools with open enrollment.”

The district has long been a popular site for families considering open enrollment. School ranking site Niche recently placed District 719 as No. 8 in the best school districts in the state and No. 3 for the best teachers.

For the last five years, open enrollment numbers have outweighed the number of resident students leaving for another district, bringing in additional state aid on balance. Cink said in many years the additional aid has helped cover expenses like rising employee wage and benefits.

Last year brought a record number of students enrolling into and out of the district. According to district data, 1,100 students open enrolled into the district and 739 resident students left the district, creating a net gain of 361 students.

“The reason that we can financially make this work is because we’re growing district. If we weren’t, we’d be coming to our taxpayers a lot more asking for more money so that we didn’t have to cut programs,” Cink said.

“If you look at other state districts in the state, they’re clamoring for open enrollment because they’re not growing in there,” she continued.

It only takes a look across Highway 35 to the neighboring Burnsville-Eagan-Savage District to see Cink’s point. In July, officials from district 191 received an expert evaluation that recommended they close two elementary schools and one middle school by the end of next school year to save money as enrollment falls.

Though current enrollment hasn’t met expectations, Assistant Superintendent Jeff Holmberg told the board the district is not hurting for students. Enrollment is up 150 from last year’s count of 8,748.

“So I don’t know if this is an anomaly,” Assistant Superintendent Jeff Holmberg said during the board meeting. “Every year I’ve been in the district, we’ve increased students.”

Staloch said staff will present updated enrollment numbers at the Aug. 26 board meeting and consider doing more long-range projections for budget and enrollment data.

Open enrollment applications for the 2020-2021 school year will be available Dec. 2.

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