The rush of students passing in the hallways to class this year was no indication of a problem that has been brewing at Pekin Community High School — the student population has dropped consistently for the past five years.
Fewer students mean fewer teachers are needed and fewer administrators to oversee day-to-day operations, so the cuts began this year at the close of the school year.
Teachers and administrators retiring or resigning to leave for other positions will stay vacant. This year, eight full-time staff members and one part-time staff member retired or resigned that will mot be replaced. The district did hire an additional social worker.
The decline in student population, which translates into less student aid from the state of Illinois, is only part of the issues facing the district.
District 303 Superintendent Danielle Owens said the state has been good this year about state aid payments and has bragged that it has made full state aid payment to school districts for the year, but that is not the case.
The district saw a huge hit in student enrollment this year. Owens said there could be several reasons for the decrease in student population, but all would be speculation.
Student enrollment for 2012 was 2,046 students; 2013 enrollment was 2,018; 2014 enrollment was 2,000; 2015 the enrollment was 1,996. On the sixth day of the 2016 school year, in August, the enrollment was 1,926. On the last day of school in May of this year, the district had 1,751 students, down 175 students from the beginning of the year — a 9 percent drop in one year.
“We knew at the start of the second semester that we had lost about 100 kids,” said Owens. “We just continue to see the rise in that mobility rate of students coming in and out of the district.”
Owens said she doesn’t know if the decline over the years is related to reports of people leaving the state of Illinois because of the economic climate. Caterpillar’s lay off announcements could play a role.
“I would say that obviously, locally in the area we know a lot of things have happened,” said Owens. “Maybe they didn’t happen in Pekin, but you see a direct result of what’s happening in central Illinois.
“I also think you see a result of the rise in our poverty level in terms of the people with high mobility rates. So, when a staff member leaves and retires obviously we’re looking at numbers. As the enrollment continues to drop, that plays into the decisions we make. We can’t keep the same number of staff we had when we had 2,200 kids here. When I started here 20 years ago, it was about 2,200 kids.”
The state owes the district over $700,000 for state mandated categorical programs such as transportation and special education reimbursements. The original budget showed fund balances of $20,934,490. The amended year-end budget showed fund balances of $19,253,773.
“I guess we’re supposed to consider ourselves the lucky ones because at least K-12 education, even though the state cannot pass a budget, they’ll pass a budget for K-12 education,” said Owens. “Last year, of course, they said they would fully fund education.
“So, what is happening is we’re finally getting all of our general state aid payments at the level we’re supposed to, but we’ve gotten one mandated categorical payment this year out of four that we are supposed to get. So when they say they’re fully funding education that’s not really true.”
The state owes the district $335,000 in transportation payments, said Owens. The education fund deficit increased from $177,180 to $208,624 partially because of special education mandates not paid by the state.
“What you’re seeing here is the fund balance in the education fund has gone down,” said Owens. “We know we’re deficit spending in operations and maintenance.
“So I think obviously our concern walking into this next year is, again, we don’t have a (state) budget. We know we’ve only gotten one payment this year in mandated categoricals, so what does that mean for next year?”
Follow Sharon Woods Harris at Twitter.com/sharrispekin