DEWITT — The number of students who live in the Central DeWitt School District but attend a neighboring school increased by 18 over the last calendar year.
School board members say the data is concerning. School enrollment numbers are directly tied to the amount of money the district receives in supplemental aid from the state.
Superintendent Dan Peterson presented a breakdown of the numbers at the board’s November meeting. While there is a silver lining — 10 additional students chose to open enroll into the district than in the previous year — the fact of the matter is students are leaving the district. Board members said that’s hamstringing budgets that are already being squeezed by inflation and what they say is inadequate supplemental aid from the Iowa Legislature.
Overall, 72 students who live in the Central DeWitt district open-enroll out, according to the school’s data. Of all the surrounding schools, North Scott (29), Camanche (16), Calamus-Wheatland (8), and Pleasant Valley (5) are usurping the most students.
Open enrollments into the district have more than doubled since 2012 — including 10 more this year than last year. And while the increase of resident students open enrolling to other schools is not as drastic, numbers increased this year after plateauing since 2019.
Peterson said while he couldn’t remember the exact date, the district in the past sent a survey to all families choosing to leave the district. While the rate of return for the survey was low, Peterson said some of the responses were valuable.
“(Leaving the district) was a lot about convenience, where they lived, and where the parents work,” Peterson said of the students leaving.
School board member Cory Huff wants to know more.
“I understand that, but when you see numbers this high, there’s something underlying,” Huff said. “It’s a trend that can’t continue.”
Until officials can answer that valuable “why” question, the solution to keeping those kids in the district may stay elusive, officials said.
However, there is something board president Bob Gannon believes can be done locally: encouraging people to move to the district.
“Our incoming classes keep getting smaller and our exiting classes are substantial,” Gannon said. “You look back in our trends enrollment wise, and we have had some ups and downs … I don’t like that kids leave our district, but I’m more worried about how we get opportunities for people to get into the district.”
Central DeWitt’s 10th-grade class has the most resident students of any grade with 134. There are 111 resident students in 11th grade and 122 in 12th grade. In contrast, 91 resident students are in kindergarten this year, 93 in first grade and 95 in second grade. Students who attend St. Joseph school join Central DeWitt’s enrollment after middle school, which adds to the totals.
A total of 1,378 resident students attend Central DeWitt, a number that has declined steadily — save for an increase between 2007-10 — since 2000, when 1,638 kids were Sabers. The district’s certified enrollment — which includes open enrollees into the district — follows that same trend. Generally, public-school enrollment numbers across the state declined in the same way.
Another variable putting schools potentially behind the 8-ball — while providing more freedom of choice for families — was the Iowa Legislature’s passing of a bill last session that removed the open-enrollment deadline. Now, families can open enroll into any public school regardless of where they live at any time in the school year.
Gannon said he invited community leaders to engage with the board to find ways of attracting more people — young families — to live in the district, whether it be in DeWitt, Grand Mound, Welton, or somewhere in between.
“We’re in a down-trend situation,” Gannon said. “I’d put (our facilities) up against anybody’s; there’s no reason for someone not to want to go to school here. How do we get people to come to our district? That’s the easiest way to put kids in our schools, give them an opportunity to live here.”
Board member Angela Rheingans, the president and CEO of the DeWitt Chamber & Development Company, said efforts in town are underway to provide living opportunities to multiple income brackets, including two low-to-middle income housing developments, a massive renovation of the former Iowa Mutual office building into market-rate apartments, and a new high-end, large-lot, single-home development on DeWitt’s southwest wide on Westwood Drive.
“If you’re selling your house, you can sell it fast, but it is hard for families to come here,” Rheingans said. “It’s not for one single (reason), but (available) housing is a massive part of that. It’s all types of housing: apartments, market-rate, apartments with some kinds of assistance with them, and it’s single-family homes. You must have all.”
More students open enroll into the district — 141 — than the 72 resident students leaving, but Peterson said having students stay in the district provides the best-case scenario for funding purposes. Money from the state’s 1-cent sales tax is attached to the number of resident students. The sales tax revenue, called SAVE, is used primarily to pay for infrastructure maintenance and expansion.
“I don’t want to bank on kids open enrolling into the district; they aren’t generating state penny funds,” Peterson said.
The crux of the issue, board members agreed, comes down to funding. The Iowa legislature this year approved a 2.5% increase to its school funding formula, increasing the amount it gives school districts to $7,413 per child served.
Iowa schools received an estimated $159 million in new funding for the current fiscal year, upping its total to $3.6 billion.
With national inflation numbers inching closer to 8%, school board members say another 2.5% increase isn’t good enough, but also said there’s not much they can do about it. Adding students to the district, however, would be another way to increase revenue.
“For the last three or four years, funding hasn’t kept up, so we are behind the eight ball,” Gannon said. “The state has no intention of increasing the number, and we are in big trouble from that standpoint going into the future. If we see even one or two more people leaving, that’s thousands of dollars. It’s to the point now where we need to be more proactive. I’m not saying I have the answer, but we need to figure out what those things are.”