It’s not getting any worse, but it’s also not getting any better.
As the Stoughton Area School District’s student population continues to decline, school board members are becoming increasingly concerned about the effects on district programs and facilities. And some are growing frustrated about a seeming lack of action from city officials to help attract and keep young families, the lifeblood of a school district.
Monday night, administrators and board members discussed the annual “Third Friday” official student count, which showed 65 fewer students in the district for the 2019-20 school year than the year before. And while the number is less than the 94-student loss last year, the most troubling statistic is that smaller classes are working their way through the grade levels.
The vast majority of the decline is at River Bluff Middle School, down 69 students from last year. Those numbers are indicative of a deeper problem for the district, as incoming class sizes are smaller than outgoing ones.
“It’s the same story we’ve been talking about since 2002,” business manager Erika Pickett said.
“My biggest concern is when you look at kindergarten, first, second and third grade, we’re talking classes below 200, and back in the early 200s our graduating classes were around 300. That’s a pretty big shift.”
Classes in grades 8-12 average around 238 students, while grades K-7 average around 197. Aside from early childhood and 4K programs, the district’s largest class in 2019-20 is the 11th graders (247), with the smallest the first-graders (182).
In the past 10 years, the district has “lost” 503 students, a nearly 15 percent drop from 3,377 in the 2010-11 year to 2,874 this school year.
“Right now, our high school is 958, four years from now it’ll be 786, down 172 students,” said superintendent Tim Onsager. “That’s a different high school.”
“And that’s not what we want,” added board vice-president Joe Frey. “You can spin it a bunch of ways, but it’s something we just have to own and say, ‘Why?’”
Prompted by a board member’s question, Pickett said “just about every other” school district in Dane County is increasing in enrollment, which brought a bit of angst to the surface among some members.
“I think the city’s not working with us,” said board member Yolibeth Fitzgibbon.
Board member Kathleen Hoppe said things didn’t seem to click with the school board members and three Common Council members on the ad hoc committee started a few years ago to look into ways to attract and retain young families.
“One actually left as a council member, one had too many things on her plate and withdrew and another had trouble understanding why we were doing this,” she said.
Hoppe said the Stoughton Chamber of Commerce also needs to be included in the effort, as well, “so when people inquire about Stoughton and about our schools they get a little more than just the trifold with all the Syttende Mai pictures and, ‘We have the opera house.’”
“That’s not luring in families,” she said. ”We have to really expand that and tell them about our parks and great schools and the things that are going on.”
Board member Tim Bubon asked when the school district is going to “get to the discussion” and create a plan of action, whether it’s working with the city or not.
“We can look at the data, but that’s not going to get the job done,” he said. “We have to come up with some kind of comprehensive action plan that the community can be behind, and whether we have to do that, maybe that’s what it’s going to take.
“But it’s a little frustrating for me, because we keep talking about this and I don’t see anything happening … not from the district standpoint,” Bubon added.
Board member Steve Jackson said he’d like the district to gather information about what younger families are looking for and share that with city officials that could help turn those ideas into action.
“It sure would help if we had affordable housing for families instead of more senior housing,” he said. “It will hit us … when it comes to curriculum for the children and staff, but also our facilities. What’s that going to look like if we continue to see these numbers and we’re not working with the city to make improvements?”
Onsager noted that this year, 183 students are enrolled in kindergarten, compared with 250 just a decade ago, and said those numbers point to a “long-term program,” even if immediate action is taken to attract younger families.
“Let’s say the problem is affordable housing,” he said. “Even if we decide that today, by the time we build that and it’s sold and filled and students come in, we’re looking at several years before we see that.”