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At the beginning of the 2018-19 school year, a distressing trend became clear for administrators at Wilson County Schools.
Nearly 400 students of the 11,422 who had been listed on the rolls and expected to attend didn’t show up.
On the sixth day of school, when it became clear that the school system was missing a large number of children, instructions were sent to each school principal to find out where the children had gone.
“We had a total of 391 students who we were expecting on Aug. 27 who did not come,” said Cheryl Wilson, assistant superintendent.
Of those 391 students who withdrew from Wilson County Schools during the first 10 days of school, the majority of them, 237, or 61 percent, were students who moved out of district, out of state or out of the country.
The second-largest group included 71 students, or 18 percent, who withdrew from WCS to attend a charter school.
Fifty-one students, or 13 percent, were removed from the rolls from one school to attend school in the system either due to a family move or being granted a reassignment from one school to another. Despite being lumped in with the 391 students expected to attend as of Aug. 27, one could reasonably consider them still enrolled in Wilson County Schools.
Some 24 students, or 6 percent, withdrew to attend private schools.
The smallest percentage of students, of the 391 who were missing from their assigned classes during that first 10 days, was just 2 percent, or eight students, whose parents decided to home-school their children.
“I think all school systems in the state that are seeing declines in student enrollment are concerned,” said WCS Superintendent Lane Mills. “That is an issue with public schools in North Carolina. The important thing is having a conversation about it and looking at your data and keeping track of it, but also realizing that we have to tell our story about what these impacts cause on school systems and communities.”
ENROLLMENT AND FUNDING
The biggest issue Wilson County Schools has faced is the loss of students at the elementary level, where more than 700 students have left.
From the 2014-15 school year to the 2018-19 school year, elementary school enrollment has dropped from 5,753 to 5,058 students, middle school from 2,715 to 2,548 and high school from 3,588 to 3,558.
“If you look at middle and high school, it’s kind of flat, but it’s up and down; so I think, well before you entertain any of those questions, we want to see a longer period of data for elementary,” Mills said. “Still, the trend is a concern.”
The decreasing number of students enrolled in the schools ultimately affects the amount of funding Wilson County Schools can bring in.
Wilson County Schools’ total operating budget for 2018-19 was $111,296,010. WCS has 26 schools: 14 elementary, six middle, three traditional high schools, two early colleges and one alternative school. The per-pupil annual expenditure is about $9,376.
WCS employs 1,496 people. Teachers’ average annual compensation is $64,558, which includes Wilson County’s local supplement and the cost of employment benefits. The school district operates 103 buses transporting 5,136 students daily for an estimated 1.5 million miles a year.
“When you lose enrollment, you lose funding, and both of those things cause problems to allow us to do other things other than provide for a sound, basic education,” Mills said. “It makes it more difficult to bring in additional resources, additional programming, additional course offerings because the flexibility is not there.”
FIGURING IN CHARTER SCHOOLS
Mills said every public school system in the state has charted enrollment declines due to the recent blossoming of charter schools.
According to a draft report presented at the N.C. Charter Schools Advisory Board meeting Dec. 12 in Raleigh, North Carolina has 185 charter schools in operation educating 109,389 students. That’s based on average daily membership figures that were certified in November. This represents 7.3 percent of the total public school population, which is an increase over 2017.
Wilson County has two charter schools, the Sallie B. Howard School for the Arts and Education, with 1,023 students, and Wilson Preparatory Academy with 849 students.
“What the legislature does or doesn’t do, we have got to handle it,” Mills said. “That’s just what we’ve got to do, but certainly when you look at our numbers and everything else, it’s an impact on our budget.”
Christine Fitch, who has been on the Wilson County Board of Education for 30 years and is currently the board’s chairwoman, said funding of public schools has been an issue since charter schools came into existence.
In 1996, the North Carolina General Assembly passed the Charter School Act, which authorized creation of “a system of charter schools to provide opportunities for teachers, parents, pupils and the community to create and sustain schools that operated independently of existing schools.”
“With the mechanism that the legislature put into place to fund the charters and with the establishment of the charters, it is a difference in requirements,” Fitch said. “They can hire teachers without certifications. They do not have to pay the same salaries that we pay. They do not have to provide the same benefits that we provide.”
According to the N.C. Department of Public Instruction, charter school teachers are not necessarily required to be state-licensed. The law requires that at least 50 percent of teachers at a charter school be licensed. “However, charter school teachers may follow No Child Left Behind requirements for highly qualified staff,” the law states. “All teachers who are teaching in the core subject areas of math, science, social studies and language arts must be college graduates. Exceptional children teachers must be licensed with the state in that specialty.”
Mills said budget tightening in public schools “affects viability of things you can do in a school system.”
“You have to meet the mandates, and if it’s less restrictive because of less enrollment; you have less flexibility, so that’s going to affect some of the things that you’d like to offer, but you have to cover the basics first,” Mills said.
Mills said funding shortfalls cause belt-tightening across the board in the school system.
“I think if you ask any school system on that statewide map in any of those counties, yes, they are doing some of the same things,” Mills said.
School systems are looking at whether the losses are in elementary, middle or high school.
“We realize people have choices,” Mills said. “We certainly want public school to be the choice. That’s why every student is important. That monitoring piece is something where we look at this every year because it affects funding.”
There is no doubt that it definitely has an impact on public school systems, Mills said.
“The money goes with the students, and we follow the rules,” Mills said. “So if we are losing enrollment to charter schools, that is funding that we could have in our budget to do other things with per pupil so that’s going somewhere else.”
PRIVATE SCHOOL ENROLLMENT
Wilson County has five private schools — Greenfield School, with 342 students; Wilson Christian Academy, with 511 students; Community Christian School, with 289 students; W.E. Garnett Christian Academy, with 39 students; and a new school, Great Accomplishments Academy for students with high-functioning autism and ADHD with about 20 children in grades K-8.
Wilson County also has 525 home schools with 796 students.
Enrollment in Wilson County Schools has decreased 1,180 students from 12,344 in 2004-05 to 11,164 as of the December count during the 2018-19 school year.
The combined number of students in charter schools, private schools and home schools is 3,869.
Lumping Wilson County Schools students in with all other schools, there are a total of 15,033 students in Wilson County.
That means that one in every four students in the county do not attend Wilson County Schools.