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Declining Enrollment May Spell Doom For Districts

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DETROIT (WWJ/AP) - Swift declines in school enrollment across the Detroit area are driving school districts into debt and forcing administrators to make cuts to avoid greater financial disaster – or a state takeover.

New data out this month shows that during the five years spanning fall 2008 to fall 2012 enrollment declined 17 percent in Macomb, Oakland and Wayne county school districts. Highland Park enrollment declined 69 percent, while Detroit dropped 29 percent. Romulus and Inkster declined 26 percent.

Overall, 20 Detroit-area districts had double-digit enrollment losses.

Among the 10 districts that had the biggest percentage declines, nine are operating with a deficit.

“There’s no doubt we would be out of a deficit if our enrollment would remain stable,” Jim Meisinger, superintendent for Hazel Park Schools where enrollment has dropped 19 percent, told the Detroit Free Press.

But that’s not likely to happen, said demographer Kurt Metzger, director of the nonprofit Data Driven Detroit. He said Michigan Department of Community Health data show the number of live births in Michigan was down nearly 16 percent from 2000 to 2010. During that same time period, the number of births was down 11.8 percent in Macomb, 19.4 percent in Oakland and 22.3 percent in Wayne. In Detroit, that number was down 31 percent.

“We just don’t have that many kids,” Metzger said. “Births have been dropping since 1990 across the tri-county area. Each grade level is smaller than the previous one. And we’re not getting a grand number of migrants – whether immigrants or coming from other parts of the country.”

The economy also is having an impact, prompting some adults – often with children in tow – to leave the state.

While the big losses are happening in urban areas, the region’s suburbs haven’t been immune. Overall, 51 out of the 83 districts in the tri-county region lost students, including 8 percent declines in Livonia Public Schools and the West Bloomfield School District, a 7 percent decline in Farmington Public Schools, and a 4 percent decline in Plymouth-Canton Community Schools.

Meanwhile, Oxford Community Schools grew by 25 percent, Lakeview Public Schools by 26 percent and Westwood Community Schools by 31 percent. And enrollment at charter schools, which is a major cause for enrollment declines in some districts, grew by 9 percent.

Enrollment declines can have a disastrous financial impact on Michigan school districts because state aid is tied to student counts.

Recent declines have cost Detroit-area districts millions of dollars in state aid, prompting them to make tough decisions about programs and staff as they fight to continue operating in the black. State law allows emergency financial managers with broad powers to be appointed in municipalities and school districts with deep financial problems.

Romulus Community Schools is among the districts that saw a large drop in enrollment. But so far, it has managed to avoid operating with a deficit. But Superintendent Carl Weiss is worried.

The district has closed schools and reorganized, eliminating some positions. Employees from Weiss on down have seen their total compensation reduced by 15 percent since 2010. But Weiss said another $1 million in cuts is needed this year.

“We’re trying to make sure our bottom line stays out of the red. It’s going to be dicey. We may end up in a deficit by the end of the (school) year,” he said.

The Hazel Park district has struggled with a deficit the last six years, according to state data. Meisinger, the superintendent, said the district will need more concessions from staff and will need to consider additional cuts. He said officials also may have to consider participating in the state’s open enrollment program, which allows students living outside the district’s boundaries to enroll.

Meisinger said the situation is “very frustrating” … “but if you don’t have students, you can’t stay in business.”

TM and © Copyright 2012 CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS RADIO and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2012 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Used under license. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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