By BRENNA SWIFT
The Union Democrat
Most schools in Tuolumne and Calaveras counties have seen student enrollments decline dramatically in the past 15 years, posing financial challenges and in some cases leaving classroom buildings empty.
In each county, enrollment has plummeted, with two school districts losing more than 60 percent of their students since the mid-1990s. In Tuolumne County, overall enrollment in kindergarten through 12th-grade public schools has dropped by 1,537 students in the time between 1997 and the end of last school year.
In Calaveras County, K-12 enrollment fell by 1,395 students during the same time period.
A few school district superintendents said they expect enrollment levels to stay stable next year, though they won’t know for sure until schools start back up.
Falling student populations have caused funding reductions at schools that receive state money on a per-student basis, and they have even led to the shuttering of the Black Oak Elementary School building in Twain Harte to save money.
“The kids obviously move out with their parents, who are finding work elsewhere,” said Summerville Union High School District Chief Business Official Tonya Midget. She has also overseen finances at the Twain Harte-Long Barn Union School District budget since 2005.
A lifelong Tuolumne County resident, she said the local logging and mining industries offered more jobs for families with children in the 1970s and 80’s.
Data from the 2010 U.S. Census showed that the population of Tuolumne and Calaveras counties has remained nearly stagnant in the past 10 years. The population that does reside in the Mother Lode is generally getting older. More than 20 percent of the population in each county was older than 65 at the time of the census, and a quarter of the population was between 50 and 65.
Meanwhile, the number of residents younger than 17 fell as families with children sought work elsewhere. The collapse of the housing market, the temporary closure of the Sierra Pacific Industries mill in 2009, and government job cuts were all identified as factors that pushed families out of both counties.
“We in Calaveras County aren’t doing a very good job of attracting families with kids,” said Calaveras County Office of Education Superintendent Kathy Northington. “We don’t have jobs available and we don’t have cheap housing.”
The most dramatic evidence of the dwindling student population can be found at Black Oak Elementary School in the Twain Harte-Long Barn Union School District. The 14-year-old elementary school building has stood mostly empty for about 6 years.
During the 1996-97 school year, just before the elementary school opened, Twain Harte-Long Barn enrolled 809 students. Last year, it had only 318 students, representing a decline of 61 percent — a drop that Superintendent John Keiter called “stunning.”
“When they were securing funding to build the Black Oak campus, the numbers were huge,” Midget said. “As things progressed and the construction of that property started, the district started to experience decline at the very same time.”
Budget concerns soon worsened the problem, and Twain Harte-Long Barn was switched to the “basic aid” funding model — meaning that it relies mainly on local property taxes rather than state money.
The Black Oak Elementary building closed after the 2006-07 school year, and its students moved to the Twain Harte Middle School campus. That required renovating a Twain Harte Middle School building, Keiter said.
Today, the Black Oak building is used for a Head Start preschool program and Twain Harte-Long Barn board meetings. A committee will determine what to do with the vacant building and also Pinecrest School, a small school which the district moved to close this year as a result of both declining enrollment and budget constraints.
The district is still paying off costs for the Black Oak Elementary building, Midget said.
Belleview School District has seen its enrollment decline by 176 students, or 63 percent, since 1997. Enrollment at Big Oak Flat-Groveland Unified School District and Curtis Creek School District dropped by more than 40 percent in the same time period.
In Calaveras County, Vallecito Union School District’s student body shrank almost as much.
Soulsbyville Elementary School’s enrollment went down by 31 percent, and Jamestown Elementary School’s dropped by 27 percent. Summerville Elementary School and Sonora Elementary School experienced smaller declines of about 25 percent each.
The only exceptions to the rule were Columbia Union School District and Mark Twain Union Elementary School District, which both saw small gains in enrollment between 1997 and the end of the 2011-12 school year. Columbia Union School District’s enrollment peaked at 617 students in 2008-09 and went down to 586 last year.
Northington attributed Mark Twain Union Elementary School District’s growth to the arrival of more Hispanic residents working in the agricultural industry.
“We do have some things that are changing our demographics,” she said. “We’re finding that Mark Twain has the highest Hispanic population.”
High schools tended to lose smaller percentages of students than elementary schools, with Sonora Union High School District losing 19 percent — about 300 — of its students. Bret Harte Union High School District lost 13 percent between 1997 and the 2011-12 school year.
Calaveras Unified School District, which includes elementary schools, a middle and high school, lost 15 percent of its population — 595 students.
On paper, Summerville Union High School District has gained students within the past 15 years. However, Midget said Gold Country Charter School is included in the district’s figures and accounts for the increase.
Schools run directly by Summerville Union School District have undergone a decline, but “evened out somewhat,” Midget said.
She and school administrators pointed out that declining enrollment doesn’t necessarily lead to cost savings.
“We’re not declining to the point that we can get rid of staff,” Midget said. “There comes a point where you hit bottom.”
For example, the district’s school buses must cover the same territory as in the past — even though fewer students ride them. In other cases, student attrition makes it more difficult to run educational programs.
“Some of the funding we get is based on student numbers in (Calaveras County),” Northington said. “Obviously, you get less students, you get less money.”
I know people think, “Yeah, we’ll just eliminate administrators,” she added. “Here’s my personal take: If you don’t have good administrators at the helm and leading, then it all falls apart ... I don’t see that we need to be backing off from administration.”
There are four superintendents for four school districts in Calaveras County, while Tuolumne County has six superintendents for nine school districts. Each county has an additional superintendent in the county offices of education.
Several school districts in Tuolumne County share superintendents. Keiter, who is joint superintendent of Twain Harte-Long Barn and Summerville Union High School District, said the model is a cost-saving one.
But he also said that a complete consolidation of his two school districts would create problems, since Twain Harte-Long Barn is on a different funding model.
“It’s somewhere around $600,000-$700,000 in funding that would just disappear,” he said. “In Tuolumne County, it’s pretty complicated … There’d be a couple winners, but overall I think most of the school districts would say, ‘We’re not really enamored with the idea of unifying.’”