Enrollment in public schools across the state compared to last year is down roughly 3,300 students, according to state education officials. District administrators and education advocates say many of those students are now being homeschooled. The decline in enrollment could hit school budgets now and in the future.
Sheila Botelho’s 11-year-old son Johnathan has attended school in the Billings Public School District since kindergarten.
"He was supposed to start Medicine Crow with the sixth grade until the COVID hit."
Botelho opted for the district’s remote option this year because she wanted to reduce the risk of her son bringing COVID-19 home to his elderly grandmother. Initially she was worried about taking on remote learning as a parent. But now she likes playing a role in Johnathan’s educational progress. Botelho says she will likely pull her son out of the district and move to homeschooling next year.
"I was thinking about it, and this kind of just gave it a push, with this COVID."
Betelho isn’t the only one thinking about or making that choice. Billings Superintendent Greg Upham says students moving to homeschooling played a significant role in the enrollment drop this year.
"We saw a significant drop of right around 500 students in our elementary district."
Upham says that drop in enrollment could cost the district roughly $300,000 in state funding next year. Rather than year-to-year numbers, district funding from the state can be calculated by using the average enrollment over the past three years.
That averaging out softens the immediate blow of 500 students leaving the district. Billings Public Schools could also ask state education officials to base funding in-part off next October’s student count, which would help if the coronavirus pandemic is largely behind us and students return to the district.
If they don’t, and the three-year average of student enrollment continues to fall, so too will the district’s state funding.
"Looking out a couple of years, this could be millions of dollars in our elementary budget. So, it is a significant issue," Upham says.
Montana Office of Public Instruction Superintendent Elsie Arntzen says OPI doesn’t know if all 3,300 students who have moved out of public school districts shifted over to homeschooling. She also points out that enrollment in high schools is relatively stable.
"It’s our elementary, our pre-K or kindergarten through eighth grade that there seems to be some more fluctuation."
OPI says it doesn’t have a clear calculation of how much money districts stand to lose. Student enrollment numbers will again be counted in February to come up with the final enrollment numbers that will be plugged into the state funding formula.
However, head of the Montana School Boards Association Lance Melton says it isn’t just state funding that’s at issue. He says tax support from local residents is also tied to enrollment numbers. Melton estimates that districts could be looking at a $6.5 million funding loss when that support also drops.
That’s why Melton is proposing a bill for the upcoming legislative session.
"It says that if your students who are enrolled this year are less than your students who were enrolled last year, that you get the funding based upon last year’s enrollment, for one year only."
Melton says hopefully the pandemic will be in the rearview mirror by next school year, giving districts a chance to assure parents in-person education is safe and regain some of those homeschool students.
Legislators on the house’s education committee are eager to take up Melton’s idea and others, so says committee chair and Great Fall’s House Rep. Fred Anderson.
"Both sides of the aisle are very aware of the impacts this is having on school districts, and they want to do the right thing for school districts."
Anderson says there are options for legislators to protect districts from a sharp funding drop. He adds that like in past years, lawmakers in the House will pass school funding legislation early in the session so districts can make a fiscal plan for the next two years.