The Philomath School Board listens to a Philomath Education Association report from co-president David Dunham, seated far right. (Photo by Brad Fuqua/Philomath News)

A high student capacity percentage at Philomath Elementary, unknowns involving definitive revenue allocations from the state and the mention of having a committee look into a future backup plan for overflow students were all part of the Philomath School Board’s latest enrollment discussion.

Last month, board members had been aware of rising enrollment numbers based on registrations to the point that teachers were added at the primary school and elementary school. At the board’s Sept. 21 meeting, Business Manager Jennifer Griffith provided a deeper dive into the numbers, including details on building capacities. Most appear to be sitting at acceptable percentages but Philomath Elementary did come in high. With its classrooms for students in grades 2-5, the elementary school sits at 96% of capacity while all other schools are below 80%.

Board member Ryan Cheeke showed concern about the high percentage, especially with anticipated population impacts from local housing developments.

“These new developments are still building … when you look at 96%, it’s very concerning and you can’t wait until you hit 100% to say, ‘oh crap, we should’ve done something,’” Cheeke said. “Should we put some effort into that now and not when the problem arises?”

Griffith clarified that the capacity percentages are “maximum ideal numbers” based on how classrooms are currently being used. The capacity figures were based on a long-range plan calculated in 2019 as part of a facilities assessment update.

“They did current capacity of how the classrooms were used at that time and there was a maximum capacity limit where if they converted every single room in the building to classrooms,” Griffith said. “If we base it on that number, the elementary school would be down to around 70%.”

But the extent to which that possibility would be realistic is unknown. The elementary school has utilized space intended for regular classrooms for other purposes, including those for special programs. Still, the school could be strained to the limit with significant student number increases.

As far back as 2016, the school district had been talking about enrollment increases based on annexations and developments. Enrollment at the beginning of the 2016-17 school year was reported as 1,571 compared to this September’s full-time count of 1,674.

Opinions vary on possible impacts of current development with some believing housing prices are not realistic for many families with children, particularly those just starting out. Plus, statistics show that Oregon is seeing a lower birth rate, which is a factor in the school district’s projections.

Griffith referred to a report circulated by the Coalition of Oregon School Administrators that showed “the death rate is higher than the birth rate currently and could stay that way is the prediction. The birth rate for the next 10 years is predicted to be lower.”

Other information plays into projections as well, such as the typical jumps in enrollment that have historically occurred in the upper elementary grades. But enrollment projections appear to be an inexact science.

“We were basing our enrollment projections this year on birth rates and coming in, we didn’t think our kindergarten class was going to grow by 20,” Griffith said. “It was an unusual adjustment.”

If enrollment capacities are surpassed and with the district not able to try for a bond until 2027, Superintendent of Schools Susan Halliday said other solutions may need to come into play, such as the use of on-campus modular units or renting space. Those options would come with expense, thus, Cheeke’s question on being prepared.

Griffith went through specifics of the enrollment numbers with board members.

“It does show a significant increase from where we were last year at the end of the year and even from the beginning of last year,” Griffith said. “It’s much more than what we entered for our estimated membership and revenue.”

Those enrollment members for the state were estimated this past December. The Oregon Department of Education did open up membership and revenue reporting recently and Griffith updated Philomath’s numbers to correspond with current figures.

“So, if and when they recalculate, we would see a difference but we don’t know what that difference could be,” Griffith said. “I did talk to some business managers of other districts and our neighbors to the west and our neighbors to the east have both seen significant decreases. And some of the smaller districts are just holding steady.”

Philomath’s enrollment numbers appear to have been heavily impacted by out-of-district transfers. Based on home addresses, 20% of the school district’s enrollment are from other districts.

Griffith said those numbers could be off just a bit because some students with Corvallis home addresses are actually already in the Philomath School District and not actually categorized as interdistrict transfers. But the figures do provide a strong indication of the impact of out-of-district transfers.

“While it might help with ADM (average daily membership) and State School Fund (revenue), it has also added to staffing needs,” Griffith said. “They will open up the estimated membership revenue to all districts, if they choose, but ODE will only recalculate if there’s a significant change amongst the whole state.”

Griffith said Philomath may not know if it will receive more funds until January.

“So, unfortunately, we’re having to spend within our means with what we have and we don’t know of any more general funds coming at this moment,” Griffith said.

The district does have initial estimates that show an increase in funds coming from other state education sources, such as the Student Investment Account, which was established by the Legislature a few years ago to establish or expand programs in dropout prevention, career and technical education and college-level education opportunities.

In addition, the district could also be receiving dollars out of the state’s Early Literacy Success Community Grant Fund.

Griffith stressed that no allocations have been determined, only information on initial estimates.

“I think with the late legislative session this year, everything’s still in limbo,” she said. “We’re going to look at how to make things work. We can’t let our kids suffer because of a lack of funds and we have so many more kids, we just have to make sure we do it within our means.”

Board member Sandi Hering asked if Philomath has a limit on how many out-of-district students should be accepted.

Halliday said current policy dictates that if no decision has been made on a maximum number of transfers to accept by March 31 in a given year, then the district must accept them all.

Halliday said this past academic year, there were no indications that projections of being inundated with more students would materialize. The superintendent indicated that a new policy may need to be considered.

“I want to come back to the board and have that conversation about how we want to handle interdistrict transfers,” she said.

Halliday mentioned that many other districts have a policy in place to accept transfers up to a certain deadline and any additional after such date would be approved based on space availability. Overall, she said there are many factors to take into consideration.

As of Sept. 15, enrollment increases have been seen on all campuses when compared to September 2022:

  • Clemens Primary (K-1) — 178 students, an increase of nine students from September 2022.
  • Blodgett Elementary (K-4) — 35 students, an increase of seven students.
  • Philomath Elementary (2-5) — 367 students, an increase of 19 students.
  • Philomath Middle School (6-8) — 344 students, an increase of 11 students.
  • Philomath High School (9-12) — 476 students, an increase of five students.
  • Philomath Academy (K-12) — 71 students, an increase of 14 students.
  • Kings Valley Charter School (K-12) — 203 students, an increase of six students.

Enrollment does change through the course of a year and the counts this fall also exceed numbers seen in June at six of the seven campuses, including 65 at the high school.

The rise in enrollment could be attributed in part to a significant number of students leaving the district during the pandemic but Griffith said current figures are still a bit higher than pre-COVID numbers.

Philomath High’s sophomores represent the largest class in the district with 133 students — that’s not including 13 other sophomores at Philomath Academy.

In other news out of the Sept. 21 meeting:

• Principals and directors provided reports on their teams and shared highlights from the opening couple of weeks of classes. Halliday also went into some detail about Philomath Academy, which she is currently serving as interim principal.

• First grade teacher Melissa Malusky appealed to the board during public comments about the need for a covered play area at Clemens Primary School. See Three Things column for more on this topic.

• Danielle Carter, an instructional assistant at Clemens Primary, asked the board to reconsider cuts that have been made to aides after witnessing impacts over the first few weeks of school.

• Local resident Nina Petrovich spoke during public comments as well with a request for the district to consider allowing recognition and celebration of events that promote diversity, inclusion and equity. Petrovich volunteered to support any such activities. Later in the meeting, board member Erin Gudge asked that months with special designations be added to the board’s important dates section in the meeting agenda.

• The board also listened to reports from Lorelei Schell (student government) and David Dunham (Philomath Education Association). Schell highlighted various activities, including upcoming homecoming events. Dunham provided an overview of the first few weeks of school, comments that included concerns over the rollout of a new student information system.

• Halliday shared with the board timelines and data related to the state’s School Report Card, which includes testing, graduation, attendance and several other pieces of information.

• No discussion occurred on the House Bill 2753 board compensation issue at the request of the Oregon School Boards Association. Chair Rick Wells read part of an email he received that stated, “The Ethics Committee for the state of Oregon would like us to not discuss any of this until they come out with their recommendations” and added that the board will honor the request until further notice.

• A joint meeting between the Philomath and Kings Valley boards was scheduled for Oct. 24 at the charter school.

• The board met in executive session for one hour prior to the regular meeting to discuss as allowed by law personnel-related matters and records exempt from public inspection.

Brad Fuqua has covered the Philomath area since 2014 as the editor of the now-closed Philomath Express and currently as publisher/editor of the Philomath News. He has worked as a professional journalist since 1988 at daily and weekly newspapers in Nebraska, Kansas, North Dakota, Arizona, Montana and Oregon.