Projections show enrollment on decline in most Butler County districts
By Rick Wills
Published: Saturday, Aug. 24, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
Enrollment is expected to decline in all but one of Butler County's nine school districts over the next six years, which school officials say could strain resources.
The county's largest school district, Butler Area, is embarking on a demographic study that district officials said could lead to closing one or more of its 14 schools.
At least two school districts have closed schools in the past 10 years.
Fewer students present school officials with the challenge of maintaining staffing and curriculum while keeping school systems attractive for potential residents.
“Declining enrollment does put pressure on a district, especially one that has many school buildings. It makes it harder for the district to operate economically,” said Michael A. Strutt, superintendent of the Butler Area School District.
The district expects about 7,360 students this year. That's down from 8,152 in 2006. By the 2018-19 school year, the Pennsylvania Department of Education projects enrollment of 6,912.
Western Pennsylvania has lost much of its population over three decades — as many as 50,000 people per year left in the early 1980s — and it only has begun to stabilize that loss.
“The Pittsburgh region is now in the fifth year of more people moving in than moving away, though the numbers are not big. It is not comparable to population growth,” said Christopher Briem, a regional economist at the University of Pittsburgh.
There is a sharp contrast between enrollment patterns in suburban southern Butler County, where the number of students exploded in recent decades, and the county's heavily rural areas in the north, where population has declined.
Of the county's nine districts, only the Mars Area School District is expected to grow in the next six years.
“We have been adding 80 to 100 students a year in recent years,” said Josh Schwoebel, a Mars spokesman.
This school year, the district expects 3,239 students. In 2018-19, enrollment is expected to be 3,534 — up from 2,986 in the 2006-07 year, according to the state.
“I don't worry about enrollment declines at all. There have been new homes built in Mars ever since we moved there in 1994,” said Kathleen Bartholic, a mother of students in the district.
The Seneca Valley School District, which includes Cranberry, is one of Butler County's two largest districts and experienced annual growth of 5 percent for much of the 1990s, district spokeswoman Linda Andreassi said.
“Enrollment has declined very slowly since about 2003, less than half a percent a year,” Andreassi said.
The district expects about 7,300 students this year. According to the state, there will be about 1,000 fewer students by the 2018-19 year — projections that surprise some local parents.
“They are building all around where we live, and there are young families moving in. I can not imagine the need to close a Seneca Valley school anytime in the next 10 or 15 years,” said Heidi Suppa of Evans City, whose children attend the schools.
Enrollment can be unpredictable, Andreassi said.
“We see much more construction growth in the northern parts of the district, in Jackson and Lancaster, than there ever was before,” she said.
Closing any schools is unlikely for “at least 10 or more years,” Andreassi said.
Closing schools is never easy. In the North Allegheny School District earlier this year, even preliminary talk of closing Peebles Elementary School precipitated formation of a vocal parents group and the resignation of one longtime school board member.
“There is so much emotion attached to closing schools. It is almost always a hot issue,” Strutt said.
The rural Moniteau School District draws students from a 250-square-mile area. Two years ago, the district closed one of its two elementary schools, which made scheduling bus routes a challenge.
“We try to keep students' bus rides under an hour long,” said George Svolos, Moniteau's superintendent.
Course offerings, staffing and programming are all more difficult when enrollment falls, Svolos said. Like other districts, Moniteau is adapting its curriculum to the Common Core standards, a national curriculum that stipulates subject-specific testing.
“That takes time, money and lots of teacher training,” he said.
Eric Ritzert, superintendent at Karns City, said drops in enrollment are particularly challenging at the high school level.
“To maintain a course, you have to have a certified instructor. We have not scaled back courses or programs. We have met our budget through attrition of staff,” he said.
Rick Wills is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7944 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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