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ROGER WATSON COLUMN: Enrollment stats hard to pin down

A number in the Stanly County Schools audit report caught my eye recently.

The audit says enrollment grew from 8,291 to 8,414, an increase of 1 percent.

For a school system that has seen declining enrollment for more than a decade, this increase from the 2017-18 year to the 2018-19 year is good news.

The number caught School Board Chairman Melvin Poole’s attention as well.

“We have a certain individual in the county running around like Chicken Little (saying) the sky is falling and how we are losing kids,” Poole said during the public school board meeting about the audit, apparently taking a shot at former county commissioner and school consolidation proponent Peter Asciutto.

The problem is, we cannot verify the enrollment numbers used in the audit.

Chris Miller, our reporter, has asked the school system about the increase.

School officials pointed us to the N.C. Department of Public Instruction website. There, anyone can take a look at enrollment trends and see for themselves. Comparing the final membership (enrollment) last day numbers (MLD), I do not see the 123-student increase that’s included in the audit. The final membership on the last day number for 2017-18 was 8,192. The same number for the 2018-19 school year is 8,216.

So, there was an increase and that is good news. It wasn’t the 123-student increase the audit states, but it is the first upward tick in the enrollment number since 2004-05 when enrollment went up by 13 students, using the same MLD stats.

The News & Press did a story this past week reporting school enrollment has dropped so far this school year by 78 students. Since it was a mid-year story, this story uses the Average Daily Membership (ADM) stat.

Last year’s increase may be short-lived. But instead of precipitous drops of more than 100 students like in most years, enrollment in Stanly County is showing signs of stabilizing.

It will be interesting to see if the housing growth in the western part of the county brings significantly higher enrollments to schools in that area.

In the past 10 years, the school system enrollment has fallen by 816 students, or 9 percent.

There’s lots of reasons Stanly County has lost students. Charter schools and homeschooling are two big factors.

Falling school enrollment is not just a Stanly County issue. The declining birthrate has caused experts to project the United States will have 8.5 percent fewer public-school students a decade from now.

Looking at the nationwide trends while seeing a 9 percent drop in local students over the past decade and determining we may not need the more than 20 school buildings at some point in the near future is not being Chicken Little. It is thinking ahead and planning for the future.

Hopefully the two sides in the consolidation discussion that happens on Facebook, local restaurants and civic gatherings will be able to at least see each other’s points of view and respect their different perspectives as these enrollment trends and the direction the county school system needs to go become clearer in the coming years.

Roger Watson is publisher of The Stanly News & Press.