8-28-13 Decreasing students force tough choices

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WHEELING, W.Va. (AP) — Dwindling student enrollment across the state is forcing school officials to make difficult decisions.

The most recent report from the state Department of Education shows that 37 out of 55 counties lost students from 2008 through 2012. The fewer students a county has, the less state funding it receives.

“It’s difficult to survive,” said Nick Zervos, executive director of Regional Education Service Agency 6. “You see counties in trouble in West Virginia because the services they are required to provide by the state are not fully covered by the income they receive.”

Some counties are debating whether to cut staff or eliminate class options. Electives such as foreign languages are often the first to go, Zervos said, since they are not in the required curriculum determined by the state.

In Tyler County, Superintendent Robin Daquilante said the choice was to eliminate some elementary school teacher positions in the past years instead of cutting high school electives to make up for lost students. Tyler County has lost 106 students in the past six years.

“One of our difficult decisions has been to cut staff,” Daquilante said. “We did not cut any programs.”

Hancock County has lost 125 students since 2008, but Superintendent Suzan Smith said the district has been preparing for lower student populations for years because enrollment has been steadily declining for decades.

“Obviously, state funding comes in with students and when you lose students, you lose funding and it hurts everybody,” Smith said. “We’ve had to eliminate electives and try to find alternatives to provide the best for our students. What you try to do is the least amount of interruption to instructional time, so as a result, other programs get cut.”

Low student enrollment also played a role in the consolidation of two schools in different counties. Leading Creek Elementary is being built on the border of Gilmer and Lewis counties, which both had small, aging schools that housed decreasing student populations. Construction on the $11 million school is expected to be finished by late 2014.

Ron Blankenship, superintendent of Gilmer County Schools, said the district is considering consolidating its remaining three elementary schools to cut staff and put more money toward high school electives.

The problem of a declining student population will continue as long as the economy in West Virginia also is in decline, Zervos said.

“The big deal (with student enrollment) is jobs and the economy — that’s what drives it,” Zervos said. “When you have a lack of jobs, people move.”

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