The Lawrence, Garden City and Derby school districts are separated by hundreds of miles of Kansas prairie but are part of the same peculiar educational trend.
Despite general population increases of 18 percent or more in each of the cities from 1990 to 2000, and double-digit growth in public school enrollment during the decade, all three districts have now posted at least three consecutive years of enrollment decline.
Officials in the districts are optimistic the trend will reverse, but distinct economic, social and educational forces fomenting the free fall will be hard to shake.
"We think it will pick up," said Jim Lentz, superintendent of Garden City schools. "Of course, that little mad cow scare is not helping anything when you live out here in the middle of beef country."
Enrollment trends are a major concern for districts; the state's school finance formula doles out funds based on headcounts. It's the same formula declared unconstitutional by a Shawnee County District Court judge, who gave the Legislature until July 1 to fix it.
In Lawrence, an enrollment decline from fall 2002 to fall 2003 cost the district about $800,000 in state funds under the formula.
The home front
During the 1990s, Lawrence experienced steady increases in both overall population and public school enrollment. The U.S. Census reported there were 80,098 residents at decade's end, up from 65,608 in 1990. In 1999, the district had a record head count of 10,508 students.
But while population growth continues to sizzle in Lawrence, a school enrollment plunge that began four years ago has yet to flame out. The district anticipates a drop of as many as 140 students in 2004-2005, Supt. Randy Weseman said.
"We'll go through another decline next year and then it will flatten out and start back up," he predicted. An increase in the number of preschool-age children in Lawrence is sparking his optimism.
He said the enrollment dip resulted partly from development of alternative school options.
"There is a private school presence in Lawrence now that has developed over the last five years," he said. "Homeschooling probably accelerated in the last three years."
Surveys of parents pulling their children out of the Lawrence district also indicated they were moving to Baldwin, Tonganoxie, Eudora and other nearby cities to find more affordable housing, Weseman said.
Enrollment in Lawrence's elementary schools was down again this year -- for the fifth straight year. Meanwhile, enrollment was up slightly in the city's secondary schools.
Garden City losses
In Garden City, declining enrollment appears tied to changes in the job market.
A fire that swept through the ConAgra Beef Co. plant near Garden City on Christmas Day 2001 caused millions of dollars in damage. The plant never reopened.
The blaze didn't have an immediate effect on school enrollment in the Garden City district, Lentz said. Many parents found jobs close enough to Garden City to justify keeping their children in the district's schools. Those who didn't land a job, he said, have pulled up stakes little by little.
"Over time," the superintendent said, "we've been gradually losing some population every year since then as far as our schools are concerned."
The district's enrollment surged in the 1990s, but three years of decline have left the tally at 7,670 students. The city had 28,450 residents in 2000.
Lentz said the district's enrollment might rebound if Sunflower Electric Power Corp. follows through with a proposed power plant expansion in Holcomb, which is west of Garden City in Finney County.
"That's next door to us," he said. "The power plant is going to double its size. It's going to be the largest coal-fired power plant, probably in the Midwest at that point."
He said the development would bring jobs and result in a school enrollment boost.
The enrollment drop in Derby was fostered by nothing as catastrophic as the fire at Garden City, or as substantial as the maturing of private and homeschooling alternatives in Lawrence.
A five-year decline in the Derby district's enrollment reflects nothing more than aging of the city's population.
"The population in our general area has gotten to the point where we don't have the same number of young children," said Don Adkisson, director of finance for the district south of Wichita. "We're not attracting them (young families) into the district for some reason."
The city had 17,800 residents in 2000, but a decline in enrollment has left the district with 6,694 students. The loss of students triggered a controversial decision to close a magnet elementary school that focused on math and science instruction, Adkisson said.
"Let's just say those were some of the more interesting board meetings for about a month and a half," he said.
He said the latest projections indicated Derby's enrollment could continue to slip for about three years. But a new residential community being built at a golf course might inject more students into the city's public schools, Adkisson said.
"We are hopeful that we will attract some people from the Wichita district and other areas surrounding Derby," he said.
Administrators of the Lawrence, Derby and Garden City districts have something else in common. They've heard a similar complaint from patrons about economic efficiency in a district with falling enrollment.
Because there's a declining head count, taxpayers reason, shouldn't it cost less to operate a school district?
"Efficiency is always something we're looking for," Weseman said. "But there are needs and demands that accelerate whether there is money or not."
He said reductions in student enrollment didn't prevent increasing utility, insurance and labor costs.
In Derby, Adkisson said people sometimes didn't realize enrollment losses were spread over an entire district. They never come out of a single classroom.
"You might see a class down from 20 to 17 students," he said. "You still need that class. You still need that teacher. The cost does not necessarily decline."