Decline in School Enrollment in Williamston Tied to Economy

“It has been sort of like a six year winter.”

Joel Raddatz, the superintendent for Williamston Community Schools, knows the difficulties of balancing a school budget.

Enrollment in Williamston Community Schools has declined for the past six years. As enrollment declines, so does the budget, and the school district is forced to make cuts and think up creative solutions.

But the schools in the district are not failing. In 2006, the senior class had a 97 percent graduation rate and in 2007 each school in the district received high grades from the Michigan Education YES! program. So if Williamston receives high marks from the state and has a high graduation rate, why the decline in enrollment?

Families in the area are leaving, searching for better jobs and economic situations. The average price of homes in the area has gone up as well, making it unattractive for young families to move in and enroll their children in the district. However, Williamston is not alone in its troubles.

It’s hard to go anywhere without hearing about the housing market crisis, the Fed cutting interest rates another half a point or the dreaded R-word, recession. Nationally, the economy is starting to experience what many in Michigan have experienced for years.

Michigan’s economy has suffered greatly as a result of manufacturing and auto industry jobs leaving the state and going overseas. As jobs leave the state, money becomes tight for families and mortgages become even more troublesome. In 2007, Michigan came in third for the highest foreclosure rate just after Florida and Nevada.

True to form, Williamston is experiencing the same problems as the state of Michigan and the rest of the country.

Job loss has been a problem for Williamston. Its unemployment rate is 7.3 percent. That’s slightly higher than Michigan’s at 7.1 percent, but both are higher than the national average of 4.8 percent.

Because of high unemployment, Williamston residents are forced to look elsewhere for work and take their families with them, causing the decline in school enrollment. Yahoo! Real Estate reports 103 homes for sale in Williamston out of 955 (from the 2000 census). Worse yet, another 48 have been foreclosed on and another 26 are up for action according to Realtytrac.com.

Surprisingly, unlike many communities in Michigan, home values in Williamston have risen, not declined. The average value of a home is $188,700 compared to $162,600 in 2005 and $114,600 in 2000. However, the high prices make it difficult for young families to afford, which means fewer new children enrolled. “ We have a lot of people, that if they move here, if they have children at all, it’s the baby of the family and the baby is in high school,” Superintendent Raddatz said.

Because of Williamston’s uncertain economic situation, enrollment in the school district has been falling for six years. Over the previous five school years, the district has lost roughly 25 students a year, according to Raddatz. This current school year, the number almost tripled to 70 students.

The decline in enrollment has caused the budget to drop as well. Keeping with the past five years four percent decline in enrollment, the 07-08 budget was four percent less than the 06-07 budget. Because the roughly 200 students who have left are from all different age groups, “We can’t downsize at the same rate where experiencing decline,” said Raddatz. He explains the varying ages make it difficult to make the necessary cuts in any one particular area.

Over the past five years, $3 million has been cut from the budget, eliminating some jobs. “ The pressures are enormous for us because we are not funded like any of our neighbors,” Raddatz added. But in order to save money, Williamston and its neighboring school districts have thought of creative solutions.

The Williamston and Okemos school districts share the same food service coordinator, Lynna Hassenger. Williamston’s Assistant Superintendent of Business and Operations, Thomas Tebeau, also tackles Dansville school district’s accounting. “We encourage and believe in collaboration,” said Raddatz.

Although the district is declining in enrollment, no drastic measures need to be taken yet Raddatz said. He continued, “The district is losing students by the tens, not the hundreds.”

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