Enrollment at Mosquito Lake at 6 students
Haines Borough school board members heard Tuesday that attendance at Mosquito Lake School has dropped to six students, adding urgency to concerns about the school’s future.
The board scheduled a community meeting with upper valley residents from 5-7 p.m. on Jan. 21 to discuss whether the school can stay open. School superintendent Michael Byer said he’d like a board decision on the matter no later than April.
Built in the early 1980s, the school historically saw strong support from highway residents, who liked its small size and neighborhood location. But enrollment has shrunk in recent years, and attendance by fewer than 10 students in October eliminated state funds the district receives for having a second school at a separate site.
Operating the school costs the district about $245,000 per year, Byer reported at the meeting. An enrollment of nine students costs the district $150,000 in state support, assuming those students attend school in town instead, he said.
Enrollment started at nine students in September, but since that time one student has transferred to the town school and two others are now being homeschooled.
In an interview this week, resident Joe Ordonez said he decided to homeschool his daughter recently, partly because his family wants to travel – but plans on returning her to school there next year. He would also like her to stay at the school beyond fourth grade, when most highway students start busing into town. “We’re not interested in putting her on a bus for two hours a day.”
The school, with its single, multi-age classroom is one of the reasons his family recently moved to Mosquito Lake, Ordonez said. It allows students of different ages to get to know each other and builds relationships between highway families, he said.
“We love that little school and the feeling of community, with our little store, and our church and restaurant at 33 Mile. If the school closed, it would be a blow to the whole community,” Ordonez said. He said he’s also a big fan of longtime teacher Kathy Holmes, who is currently taking a year’s leave.
At Tuesday’s school board meeting, member Brian Clay said the district might consider making the school a “homeschool resource center.”
Clay said as many as 20 students in the area are homeschooled. (If enrolled in the school district’s homeschool program, a student brings the district funding equivalent to 80 percent of what the district receives from an enrolled student.) “There are a lot of kids out there. I can tell you right now,” Clay said.
school board chair Anne Marie Palmieri said she prefers to have a board discussion on the matter first, followed by talks with community members and borough officials. “But ultimately it’s going to be our decision.”
Clay said the district needed to prepare arguments for keeping the facility open “because the borough is going to say, ‘Close it,’” he said. Palmieri said the idea for a homeschool center was great. “I think everything is on the table at this point.”
school board member Sara Chapell suggested the school could be a magnet for town residents wanting a smaller school, with the district busing students up the highway. Clay said he’s heard some residents already suspect the district is busing students to prop up school numbers.
Chapell said she didn’t see why that would be a matter of concern. “From the district’s perspective, mo’ money is mo’ better,” she said.
Also at Tuesday’s meeting, the board heard an “early, rough” budget projection from Byer that the district could see about a $400,000 deficit if Mosquito Lake doesn’t make 10 students and if enrollment districtwide declines as projected.
The district has seen a 10 percent decline in enrollment in the past two years, he said, and the state’s “hold-harmless” funding, which buffers enrollment losses, is shrinking each year, he said. He said he also was concerned about possible increases in the cost of health insurance and noted the district must again negotiate a contract with the teacher’s union next spring.
“We have to plan for what’s going to happen after this stepdown (in enrollment) if we don’t get a big surge of new students. We have to follow the situation closely and be realistic to make prudent decisions,” Byer said.
The board will hold a workshop 9 a.m. to noon on Saturday, Dec. 14, to conduct a self-assessment and discuss objectives for the coming year. The meeting will include an hour-long discussion of revisions to the district’s strategic plan.
The board set as a target date Jan. 7 for its annual joint meeting with the Haines Borough Assembly.