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Enrollment forecast highlights reliance on open enrollment

Whether Ashland schools experience a steady rise or fall in enrollment over the next 10 years — and thus a steady rise or fall in its state allocated funding — appears to be heavily dependent upon Oregon’s open enrollment law that’s set to expire in 2019, according to an enrollment forecast.

Released in February, the 31-page report issued by Portland State University’s Population Research Center predicted the district will see a 175-student increase between now and the 2021-22 school year if open enrollment remains the rule of law, and a 226-student decrease over the same span if open enrollment is allowed to expire.

Originally passed with bipartisan support in 2011, Oregon’s open enrollment law was under fire and set to expire last year before Senate Bill 1566 passed in February 2016, pushing the sunset date to July 1, 2019. The law that allows students to transfer to another district without permission from their home district has proven to be a boon for Ashland schools, sparking a slight rise in enrollment after years of steady downward trending. But the law has its critics, the Oregon Education Association among them, and another extension is not a foregone conclusion.

“Your funding is based on the number of students you have, and if we lose 10 percent of our students, we are losing, more or less, 10 percent of our funding,” Ashland school board chairman Jim Westrick said. “And 84 percent of our budget is personnel. So whenever you cut money, there’s not much you can do about heating a school because you have to stay warm in the winter. There isn’t a lot of wiggle room there. So whenever you cut money, it unfortunately comes from personnel.”

The three-member research staff used population and economic trends and housing growth data to predict the district’s growth over the course of a 10-year window from the 2017-18 school year through 2026-27. The report presented two forecasts by grade level — one, labeled “high series,” assumed open enrollment would continue, and the other, labeled “low series,” assumed it wouldn’t. A chart illustrating the district’s historic and projected enrollment sums up Ashland’s dilemma: a blue line representing the high series climbs steadily, peaking at 3,211 students in 2026-27, while the red line heads in the opposite direction, finishing at 2,719 students.

According to the report, if open enrollment ceases, enrollment in the district will decline by 202 students and experience losses in all three grade groupings (K-5, 6-8 and 9-12).

The Population Research Center’s conclusions are based on several key indicators, among them;

• Birth rates in the district from 1999 to 2015 fluctuated but generally declined, reaching a low point of 140 in 2014.

• Single-family housing development in the district peaked at 180 homes in 1999 then declined to 106 homes in 2002. It peaked again at 148 in 2005 then declined sharply to 21 in 2008. Also, family housing development in the area has been relatively weak for most of the last 10 years compared to the period 10 to 20 years ago.

• For four of the first five years before open enrollment went into effect, the district experienced declining enrollment, losing 189 students between 2006-07 and 2011-12.

“It’s no secret that it’s tough to find affordable housing in Ashland,” Westrick said. “You look at people who move here with families and it’s always because of the school district, almost invariably because of the school district. So when I look at the demographer’s report, what it says to me is that, boy, we’re going to be lucky to keep our enrollment flat over the next decade. And that’s assuming that the state law regarding open enrollment remains the way it is and that’s assuming we keep accepting open enrollment students. If not, the demographer says we’re going to see a further decline in enrollment.”

That conclusion may influence the district’s decision regarding the Briscoe Elementary School property. The district-owned building closed its doors to regular school operation in 2003 and is due for an estimated $3 million worth of deferred maintenance.

One argument in favor of maintaining the school is that the district may eventually need the space again, but the report’s findings don’t support that. A district-sponsored forum was scheduled for Thursday night in the Ashland High School library.

“But you know,” school board member Eva Skuratowicz said, “it already looks like we have some creative ideas about how we can address (Briscoe), so I think as we find out more about those creative ideas, I think there might be some solutions that everybody’s going to be happy with.”

— Joe Zavala is a reporter for the Ashland Daily Tidings. Reach him at 541-821-0829 or jzavala@dailytidings.com. Follow him on Twitter at @Joe_Zavala99.

Students in Sheri Preskenis' fourth-grade class answer questions about a story written and read by classmate Ginger Campbell, left. [Mail Tribune / Denise Baratta]