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Students are returning to local schools after pandemic, though numbers reflect little growth long-term

Sabine Poux
/
KDLL

Student enrollment in the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District is holding somewhat steady while the borough’s population grows.

That’s according to the latest student counts and enrollment projections for the district — which point toward a bigger trend of outmigration and workforce shortages statewide.

Enrollment numbers impact how much money the district gets from the state of Alaska.

“The more students we have, the more revenue we have in the district,” said District Superintendent Clayton Holland.

The district gets that funding based on a 20-day count every October. This October, it counted around 8,334 students across its 42 schools. That’s about 60 fewer than last year but it’s still hundreds of students higher than the school count two years ago, when COVID-19 was running rampant in Alaska.

A lot of kids left the district that year. District Finance Director Liz Hayes said it’s not exactly clear why.

“They didn’t come to our home school program, they didn’t enroll in our brick-and-mortar schools,” she said. The district avoided a funding calamity, then, with a provision known as hold harmless.

While the numbers are up from where they were pre-COVID, they’re not completely back to pre-pandemic normals. The year before the pandemic, the district counted 8,535 kids.

Overall, district enrollment has declined from a high in 1998 of over 10,000 students. In recent years, enrollment has stayed more steady.

That trend isn’t the same at every school. Soldotna High School has nearly 660 students this year, for example, up from under 500 a decade ago. The school in the Old Believer community of Kachemak Selo has been seeing a steady decline in enrollment, dropping down to 30 students in 2022 from 75 a decade ago.

Population trends are key in understanding changes in enrollment at borough schools and schools statewide.

The Kenai Peninsula measured population growth in the 2020 census. But that growth was concentrated among the peninsula’s older population, not among families with school-aged children. Each year, the district’s student population makes up a smaller and smaller percentage of the borough’s overall population, according to the district’s projected enrollment document.

“We were seeing a lower incoming kindergarten class than our outgoing senior class,” Hayes said. “And they were attributing that to that we were becoming more of a retirement-type community on the peninsula.”

Statewide, Alaska has an outmigration issue. Holland said it’s a perennial challenge to build up the peninsula’s workforce. Take Nikiski, where schools have seen a steady decline in students in recent years. Holland said that could change if the state builds a long-awaited natural gas pipeline with a terminus in Nikiski.

Housing is also a factor. Hayes said on Kalifornsky Beach, for example, there are new family units being built.

“That we anticipate could increase the enrollment in that elementary school,” she said.

Seward, on the other hand, is dealing with a dire housing shortage. Seward High School has capacity for 400 students and counted 138 students this year.

“And people overall are attributing [the decline in students] to they can’t afford to live there,” Holland said.

Looking to the future, the district expects enrollment to drop by about 100 students in the next five years.

Even without big fluctuations in enrollment, the district is getting less money per student each year when adjusting for inflation.

The component of the funding formula that’s based on student enrollment, known as the base student allocation, has stayed flat since 2017, though Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s new budget proposes giving districts an additional $30 per student next fiscal year.

Meanwhile, Holland said the costs of running schools continue to climb — like for food and transportation, especially at the district’s more remote facilities. That’s a math problem the Alaska Legislature will have to solve when it reconvenes next month.

Sabine Poux is the news director at KDLL. Originally from New York, she's lived and reported in Argentina and Vermont, where she fell in love with local news. She covers all things central peninsula but is especially interested in stories related to energy and fishing. She'd love to hear your ideas at spoux@kdll.org.
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