Belen Schools fearing low-student enrollment will hurt overall budget

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Belen Consolidated Schools will probably have to curb its spending next year if a recent count is correct.

A preliminary count conducted last week shows the school district could lose as many 150 students, which will have an impact on its operating budget.

Belen Schools, along with all other New Mexico school districts, receives most of its funding through the State Equalization Guarantee Distribution based on the number of students enrolled the previous year.

Kathy Roselli, director of research, technology and accountability for Belen Schools, said she is worried about the preliminary figures her office compiled because of the potential for loss in funding.

"My only concern with these numbers is, historically, the October count is the highest count we have all year and then it decreases during the year," Roselli said.

The New Mexico Public Education Department determines a school district's operating budget based on a formula that includes a student's grade level and educational needs. This year's budget is based on the average number of students attending classes in the district when the counts were conducted December 2012 and February 2013.

Belen Superintendent Ron Marquez said on face value, things don't appear to be that bad but, in the long run, the decrease in students will have an impact.

"You can look at the fact that we are funded on the previous year's number and that may not be so bad right now," Marquez said. "But where it becomes bad is for next year because next year's budget will be based on this year's numbers."

Roselli said many parents are taking their children out of school and moving out of state to get work or better pay.

"We have good schools and good kids. We can't control the economics of the area," Roselli said. "You have to feed your families. You can't fault families for moving where they can provide for their kids."

Marquez said he hopes the district's plans to build a new aquatic center and a new building for its Family School will attract construction workers' families to the area.

"The difficult part is those jobs only last two or three years but that will only increase our enrollment. If nothing else, it will hopefully stabilize our enrollment," he said.

Besides the upcoming construction projects, Marquez said the district has implemented a key scheduling change that could attract students from surrounding areas.

The block schedule Belen High School adopted at the beginning of the school year allows students to increase the overall number of credits they can earn during their four years of high-school from 28 to 32, so a failed class doesn't automatically mean a prolonged high school experience.

"Before, students were only allowed to take up to seven credits per year, which means if a student failed one class they were on the five-year plan," Marquez said.

In years past, the education department disbursed funds according to the number of students a district had enrolled on the 40th day. But Marquez said with the recent push for a four-day-school week in some of the state's smaller communities, the state needed a more uniform way of reporting student population.

He said student population counts are so important to a school's overall budget that before the state changed the way schools reported students, it was common for some schools districts to keep students enrolled even though they had stopped attending classes to maximize the amount of state funding it received.

"Some school districts were purposely keeping kids until the 40th day and on the 41st day they dropped them," he said. "Maybe they were fictitious kids, I don't know."

So far Marquez says the decrease in student population hasn't interfered with the district's ability to provide an education and comply with state guidelines, regarding classroom size and student-to-teacher ratio.

The district recently had to move teachers from Belen Middle School to accommodate an unexpected windfall of students at La Merced Elementary. School officials predicted they would start the year with about 60 students enrolling in the school's kindergarten but, as of last week, 79 students were enrolled.

At the same time, Belen Middle School lost nearly 45 students, which made it easier to get teachers to transfer to La Merced, Marquez said.

"The positive news is no one lost their job," the superintendent said.

He said the discussion of layoffs will not arise until student enrollment drops below 4,000. Right now, the district shows 4,219 students enrolled.