Home schooling up, overall enrollment down in Juneau

Bridget Weiss smiles as she's congratulated on her appointment to interim superintendent of the Juneau School District at a meeting of the Juneau School Board on Aug. 6, 2018. (Photo by Jeremy Hsieh/KTOO)
Bridget Weiss smiles as she’s congratulated on her appointment to interim superintendent of the Juneau School District at a meeting of the Juneau School Board in 2018. She’s now the permanent superintendent. (Photo by Jeremy Hsieh/KTOO)

After the first week of school, Juneau School District officials say they have about 10% fewer students than they forecast in the spring. Among the remaining students, hundreds have opted into HomeBRIDGE, the traditional home school program the district supports.

These are preliminary numbers that are likely to change over the school year, but they’re already having impacts.

Superintendent Bridget Weiss said some elementary school teachers have been reassigned to HomeBRIDGE. And there’s more to do.

“HomeBRIDGE is a great program, and it’s supported about 35 kids a year. It’s been adequate. Well, now we’re supporting 300 kids, right? Or thereabouts — we know we’ll have some families shift back,” Weiss said. “So that program, we’re going to put some time in.”

These enrollment shifts could also have a significant impact on the district’s budget. The way the state’s education funding works is largely based on how many students show up for class, even virtually this year.

State law softens the impacts of abrupt drops in student counts. Meaning, with 10% fewer students, funding won’t immediately fall by 10%.

“But it’ll be a hit, for sure,” Weiss said.

Also, school districts get 10% less money for each home school student, compared to a typical student.

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and the district’s decision to start the school year without in-person classes are factors driving the enrollment shifts. School officials anticipated the trend as the pandemic dragged out over the summer, but that wasn’t clear when budgets were being drawn up in the spring.

“This year, of course, it’s extraordinary. Because, like, when we developed our budget, it was just closing right at the time this was hitting,” Weiss said. “And, you know, if you think about what we knew the first week of March, compared to what we know now? It’s pretty night-and-day difference.”

Weiss said school officials will look at “every which way possible” to resolve the coming funding gap.

Some federal CARES Act relief money did make its way to the school district, but it wasn’t for traditional expenses. Weiss said it paid for things like personal protective equipment, air scrubbers, disinfectant, hand sanitizer and devices for students for distance learning.

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