By Ken Stern 

School daze coming again

 


Ouch. Ouch everywhere, for everybody. New La Conner Schools Deputy Superintendent of Finance Dave Cram's initial assessment is that 490 students will enroll in the school district next fall. That is down 35 kids from today and 100 from 2021.

It is not good news that the pain is nationwide, that national and local media are reporting on drastic drops in the numbers of pupils attending public schools, with no upturns in sight.

This sea change is no more anyone's fault than a flood or a wild fire. There are larger reasons, root causes, as carbon dioxide emissions trap the sun's rays, warning our planet.

The one, two, three punch reducing school enrollments west of the Cascades are the coronavirus pandemic, the high cost of housing and long term declining birth rates in the late 20th century, with an ever smaller pool of adults having children.

All three are present in the La Conner School District. Some say the coronavirus pandemic has ended, but the World Health Organization in January said the coronavirus remains a global health emergency. The emergency it caused in school districts in March of 2020 has not ended but has transformed learning. Masks are no longer required but this last year children and adults are both more aware of and infected with RSV, respiratory syncytial virus, and influenza, the common flu.


Some parents have pulled their children from schools to homeschool them or transfer them to private schools.

The increasing costs of housing locally and in Skagit County has been reported on and editorialized-over in the Weekly News. Both countywide and in La Conner purchasing a home was more expensive in 2022 than 2021, with the median price over $515,000 in the La Conner market. Few parents of young children or school teachers can buy here.


The U.S. birthrate has been declining for over 65 years. Fewer babies born in past decades mean fewer school age children now. That is true generationally: Fewer 1980s babies mean fewer parents in 2010 or 2015 to have children who would be school age today.

If these are not data points but trends, the days of 600 students in the La Conner School District might be gone forever. The drop to 490 came quickly and was not foreseen. If the school district has to rescale and recalibrate, the change will be neither easy nor pain free. The ratio of teachers to students is closely linked. Decisions will be hard.


It is not a matter of arts versus sports or buses versus wood shop. Long range vision is needed while next year’s school budget is being built now and will be passed this summer. The 2023-2024 budget might be difficult to finalize and the budget process a challenge for years to come.

Still, public education evolves. La Conner Union Schools is chiseled into the lintel above the door of the school administration building. Once a one room school was the “district.” Once those who did not walk to school arrived via horse. School buses are a response to consolidation. Everything is solid for a long period and then all of a sudden the ground shifts drastically.

The future holds options and possibilities. They are not the same. It is quicker, if not easier, to choose options over developing possibilities. Possibilities invite reimagining education to benefit students, teachers, parents, the school system and the larger community. This editorial offers no solutions but only encouragement and urges support for everyone in the school district, from the youngest parent to the highest administrator.


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Like everything else with community and democracy, getting to meaningful agreements takes time and cooperation.

We are all in this together.

 

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