Pandemic Hits Some School Enrollments

State organization pursuing waiver on student data for one year

Enrollment losses can cause schools to lose thousands of dollars in school funding, and many districts statewide had unusual declines related to family decisions during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

With thousands of families statewide either homeschooling or sending students to neighboring school districts in response to COVID-19-prevention efforts, enrollment in public schools across the state dropped 3% from September 2019 to September 2020. The previous year, public schools statewide saw a more-natural 0.4% loss of students, according to the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction.

Graphic by Ryan Miller, Peninsula Pulse, using data from the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction.

Some school leaders support a movement to persuade legislators to eliminate the 2020-21 school year from future funding calculations. One of those is retired school administrator and current Gibraltar District School Board President Stephen Seyfer. 

This winter, Seyfer urged fellow members of the Wisconsin Association of School Boards (WASB) to push for districts to be “held harmless” for this school year’s enrollment figures because of COVID-19-related disruptions.

School board members at the January WASB convention approved a lobby against including this unusual school year with districts’ funding calculations.

“It’s a waiver that this year would not be included into your district’s rolling three-year average,” Seyfer said.

Seyfer said lobbyists for WASB would contact legislators such as state Rep. Joel Kitchens (R-Sturgeon Bay), who vice-chairs the House education committee. Kitchens, who has worked on ways to correct funding inequities among Wisconsin schools, said that changing the funding formula for just one year would not be simple. All districts share a “set amount of money” for schools, so changes or freezes in the formula for one year may help some districts and not others. 

“I certainly think it’s something worth exploring,” Kitchens said. “There would be a lot to it. Whatever you do affects everybody.”

The idea to disregard some of this year’s enrollment statistics for funding purposes isn’t gaining much traction among leaders of Door County districts that saw stable enrollment or only minor declines, including Sevastopol, Southern Door and Sturgeon Bay.

“This year has not affected our numbers,” said Southern Door Superintendent Patti Vickman. “In fact, our rolling average will be positively affected by this year’s numbers.”

Sevastopol Superintendent Kyle Luedtke said he understood the state school board association wanting to ensure that more districts could have a stable enrollment number “rather than one that fluctuates,” but he said such a decision in Madison would have little impact on Sevastopol.

“I am assuming the [WASB] believes that the September 2021 counts will be more reflective of 2019,” Luedtke said. 

Reopening, new-student, homeschooling effects on enrollment

Districts statewide took different approaches to educating students. Some, such as Gibraltar, had students stay home for online classes for most of the first semester. Sevastopol had a hybrid schedule for much of the first and second quarter of the school year, keeping students home for part of each week and allowing them to attend in person for part of the week. Until a COVID-19 outbreak on Washington Island in January, Washington Island School opted for voluntary in-person or online learning for most of the school year.

Sturgeon Bay and Southern Door both allowed for online learning and instruction all year, but they also allowed students to attend school unless they were quarantined.

Parents had many different reactions to their districts’ approaches. Because Wisconsin has open enrollment – which allows parents to choose to send their children to neighboring districts – Sturgeon Bay, Southern Door and Sevastopol gained some students whose parents worked and did not want to leave their kids at home. 

Some out-of-district parents, meanwhile, opted to enroll students at neighboring Gibraltar, which had all online learning until early December, when it gradually began reopening its doors. 

As of early January, Gibraltar had 19 students “open-enrolled out” to other districts and 22 students “open-enrolled in” to attend Gibraltar, according to Superintendent Tina Van Meer. 

There was also some movement among families that left behind crowded city streets for Door County’s more rural population. There’s no hard data on how many of these students were enrolled in Door County school districts because, as Gibraltar’s Van Meer said, parents don’t have to provide a reason. Sturgeon Bay Superintendent Dan Tjernagel, however, said his district administrators were aware of some students whose families had left cities to get away from crowds.

Gibraltar regained some students as classrooms reopened in the late fall and early winter, some of whom had previously been homeschooled. Though the state’s schedule for district enrollment reporting might not pick up those reentries, as of early January, there were 56 children from 33 families in the Gibraltar district who were homeschooling, according to Van Meer. That compares to 21 children from 11 families during the previous year, according to Van Meer.

September and January enrollment trends

The state requires districts to report enrollment as of the third Friday in September and the second Friday in January. Both numbers are used for general state-aid funding calculations for schools. The January numbers are combined with summer and fall counts for a district’s tax limit for that year. 

Schools that saw a drop in attendance during this one year would not feel the full state-funding impact of those declines immediately, but a one-year anomaly could penalize a district for three years, Seyfer said, so “that loss of enrollment is a true loss.”

If the state used the fall 2020-21 figure for funding calculations for Gibraltar, for example, Gibraltar’s three-year rolling average would drop from 529 students to 524, Van Meer said, which could mean a large reduction in the school’s revenue limit that’s used as part of the calculation for school funding. 

Some Door County parents enrolled students in a state-approved Virtual Academy. In those cases, local districts could count those students in their enrollment figures, but the district also had to cover their tuition. Washington Island lost a few students to homeschooling but had to pay for two families’ students who signed up for Virtual Academy, said Washington Island School business administrator Sue Cornell.

Cornell said Washington Island has received a declining-enrollment grant of about $32,400, which has buffered impacts of state-funding losses. She noted that Washington Island and Gibraltar both rely heavily on local property-tax revenue because the state considers both Washington Island and Gibraltar to be tax-base wealthy.

“We are 94% locally funded,” Cornell said.

Washington Island school enrollment varies greatly in any given year based on large or small senior or kindergarten classes. The school educated 128 students in 1995, but current enrollment is less than half that number. 

Southern Door’s Vickman said that enrollment stayed steady for her district this school year, and declines during recent years reflected declines in rural districts throughout the Midwest. Southern Door lost a handful of students to homeschooling and gained some students whose parents wanted to take advantage of the district’s in-person learning this school year.

The Sevastopol School District did not see a major decrease in enrollment overall during the 2020-21 school year. The district lost some enrollment when a large senior class graduated in spring 2020, but it gained a few students from neighboring districts.

Although Sevastopol lost students in the September 2020 head count versus the previous year, those numbers rebounded in January 2021 with only three fewer than in January 2020. Sevastopol’s Luedtke said there’s not one single reason he could point to for the higher January numbers compared to September numbers.

September 2020 Membership FTE (Full-time Equivalent)

Another count that affects school funding is membership, which includes students who open-enroll out of a district. 

Washington Island School, for example, had 47 students on the third Friday in September when head counts were taken, but 11 students who chose open enrollment in September 2020. So although the head count in September was 47, the state uses 58 instead of 47 for FTE for calculating the district revenue limit.

Gibraltar: 511 (-6.07%)

Sevastopol: 537 (-1.83%)

Southern Door: 1,042 (-2.16%)

Sturgeon Bay: 1,093 (-1.18%)

Washington: 58 (-18.31%)

January 2021 Membership

January membership is also a factor in general state-aid funding calculations for schools. The January numbers are combined with summer and fall counts for a district’s tax limit for that year. January enrollments for 2021 differed in many cases from the September 2020 head counts.

Gibraltar: 489

Sevastopol: 534

Southern Door: 1,034

Sturgeon Bay: 1,080

Washington: 57

Related Organizations