Growing budget, falling enrollment

Published 7:55 pm Saturday, May 27, 2017

Suffolk Public Schools has added millions to its budget, dozens of employees to its payroll and started building new schools in recent years, even as enrollment has declined.

But the school system says there are explanations for all of that.

The Suffolk News-Herald has been looking into the numbers since early April and requested an interview with Superintendent Deran Whitney. Upon receiving some proposed questions for the interview, division spokeswoman Bethanne Bradshaw sent back answers by email. Asked if the News-Herald could receive an interview, she responded, “This is your interview.”

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The proposed budget for the upcoming fiscal year totaled $160.8 million. In the 2014-2015 fiscal year, it was only $146.7 million.

In the 2017-2018 school year, 42 more full-time equivalent positions were proposed than the prior year, including 20 more instructional positions.

All that might sound odd given declining enrollment. But Bradshaw gave an outline of the changes.

The rising budget is due in part to rising personnel costs including raises and benefits. Other operating costs also have risen.

Bradshaw wrote in the email that 30 new positions have been added to the school budget because the system will take on the Pruden Center, now called the College and Career Academy at Pruden, as of July 1. Isle of Wight County declined to continue participating in the Pruden Center after this year, requiring Suffolk to take on the center — along with its employees — as its own.

Other changes have resulted from changing part-time positions to full-time, hiring an assistant principal, and adding two teacher assistants and a special education teacher, among other changes.

Two new schools currently under construction are the result of aging, overcrowded schools, not necessarily a bloated budget, Bradshaw wrote.

The new Florence Bowser Elementary School will replace two aging school buildings — the former FBES, now demolished, as well as Driver Elementary School. The two schools have always operated as one, anyway, as Florence Bowser served younger grades and Driver upper grades from the same district.

The new Col. Fred Cherry Middle School will add seats to relieve overcrowding at John Yeates Middle School, Bradshaw added.

“Enrollment decline division-wide does not translate to enrollment decline in each school,” Bradshaw wrote. “Some schools are seeing student increases as more housing developments come online. We still have several schools, particularly in Northern Suffolk, which are over capacity.”

About 80 mobile units currently are in use in Suffolk Public Schools. The most at any one school is John Yeates, with 18. Elephant’s Fork Elementary has 13, and Northern Shores Elementary has nine.

The city’s population as of July 1, 2016, was estimated to be 91,722 by the University of Virginia’s Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service. That’s an 8.4-percent growth from the 2010 census, which counted 84,585 people living in Suffolk.

But school enrollment has declined slightly in the last six years. According to numbers provided by Bradshaw, 14,284 students were enrolled on Sept. 30, 2016. In 2011, 14,429 were enrolled on the same date.

Bradshaw wrote in the email she’s “not sure” why enrollment is declining as the city population grows. She hypothesized that the increased population includes mostly adults who do not have school-aged children.

“Parents taking advantage of alternative educational settings” is another factor, Bradshaw added. The number of parents who have submitted “intent to homeschool” documents this year decreased, she added.

The largest private school in the city, Nansemond-Suffolk Academy, reports an enrollment of 836 on its website.

The trend of declining public school enrollment despite increasing population is happening across Virginia, although with some exceptions, according to the University of Virginia’s Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service Demographics Research Group.

According to a November 2014 report by the group, birth rates declined when the recession began in 2008 and have remained low since then. School enrollment in most localities outside of Northern Virginia is predicted to continue to decline at least through next year, according to the center, even in localities where the overall population is growing.