School of choice is a buzz phrase right now, and, in Bladen County, more and more families are taking advantage of it.
At October’s Bladen County Board of Education meeting, board members approved the 2017-18 budget, which required $784,224 be appropriated from the local fund. Finance Officer Sharon Penny explained the reason for the transfer and what it has to do with enrollment.
“We estimated … about 175 students (would attend the Bladen:Emereau charter school),” she informed the board. “Unfortunately, they ended up having 295 students enroll from Bladen County.”
Though Emereau’s charter states its board members were expecting to enroll approximately 310 students the first year, Penny told the board Bladen County Schools staff were hoping a large majority of the students at Emereau would come from Columbus Charter School. However, Columbus Charter ended up losing around 30 students.
What staff had no way of anticipating, however, was the number of students from other educational options.
“We have about 90 students unaccounted for,” added Superintendent Robert Taylor. “The only things we can think of are home school and private school students … we don’t know about those, because we don’t have to get records for (them).”
Neither home schooled nor private school students are required to report their numbers to any local agency, and the local education agency does not receive any money for them. If the student, however, returns to or enrolls in any form of public education, the LEA then receives funds.
The way charter schools receive their funding is through the LEA, so both Bladen County charter schools — Paul R. Brown Leadership Academy and Emereau: Bladen — send their numbers to Bladen County Schools and receive reimbursement for the students.
“If a kid goes from one charter school to another charter school, we don’t have to pay new money — we just write the check to Emereau instead of Columbus Charter,” Taylor said by phone. “But if a kid has never gone to charter or public school, that’s new money we have to write out of local funds.”
Of the 90 students new to Emereau this year who didn’t come from Bladen County Schools, 36 are kindergarten students the district hasn’t received or paid money for in the past. The remaining 54, district staff conjectured at the board meeting, came from home and private schools.
This year’s numbers are reflective of one of the issues facing the school system — declining enrollment. According to North Carolina Department of Public Instruction data, in 2004, Bladen County Schools had 5,694 students enrolled in the first month of the school year. By 2010, the number had declined to 5,091 students, and in the first month of the school year in 2016, the district had reached 4,511 students. A loss of 175 students this year would put enrollment at approximately 4,336 students — a decline of 1,358 students in 13 years, or roughly 100 students per year since 2004.
The losses are pretty evenly distributed throughout the 13 years for which DPI has records. While this year’s 3.9 percent decrease certainly constitutes a spike, it’s not the largest decline seen in recent years. That distinction belongs to the 2008/2009 school year, which saw 4.5 percent fewer students than the previous year. At no point in the last 13 years has the school system increased in enrollment over the prior year, but in 2011, the enrollment stayed exactly the same — 5,091 students — as the previous year.
Declining enrollment often means a loss of personnel, something Penny spoke to the board about.
“We had already anticipated about 18 (fewer positions), between the loss of enrollment the previous year and the estimate of 175 for Emereau,” said Penny. “This additional 90 means an additional six or seven teachers.”
While the news wasn’t necessarily welcome, Taylor encouraged the board the unanticipated 90 students was a one-time thing.
“With the opening of the charter school for the first time, that’s when it’s hardest to predict what the numbers will be,” he said. “If we talk with the commissioners in the spring … we do plan to take a corporate person from Emereau and Mr. (Roland) McKoy from Paul R. Brown, because we need the commissioners to realize if (Bladen County students go to charter schools), those students are still in Bladen County.”
Chairman Vincent Rozier was optimistic as well.
“We’re still the largest method of educating children in Bladen County, right?” he queried, then responded to his own question with, “And the best.”
Chrysta Carroll can be reached by calling 910-862-4163 or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.