As the school year begins, the two largest school districts in Umatilla County are both seeing growth, but at varying rates. The Pendleton School District is starting to see a gradual uptick in its student population, and hopes the numbers will translate to additional funding from the state. Hermiston School District has seen consistent growth, and is trying to figure out how to accommodate all of its students in its existing facilities.
Following years of dwindling enrollment, the Pendleton School District received some encouraging news Wednesday.
According to Matt Yoshioka, the district’s director of curriculum, instruction and assessment, the district counted a total of 3,106 students on Sept. 5. That represents a modest increase from the 3,072 students that were in attendance on the same day last year.
Almost every level of school saw a small increase in enrollment with the exception of grades 1-5, which dropped from 1,450 in September 2017 to 1,405.
In five out of the past six years, the district started the year with fewer students than it had the September prior. In the past two school years, enrollment has dropped to under 3,000 students by the June student count.
While far from the 3,355 students the district enrolled in 2007, Yoshioka said it was a good sign that enrollment was starting to perk up, praising the city’s efforts to increase housing opportunities. The district compiled a “mobility report” last year that showed that 57 percent of students who left the district did so because their families were moving out of town.
It’s important for the district to shore up its enrollment as the state prepares for a new two-year education budget cycle.
The Oregon Department of Education will collect every school district’s October enrollment numbers and use it to help determine how much each district will receive from the state.
With the Legislature not slated to start debate over education funding until it meets in Salem next February, Yoshioka said it’s difficult to say if education will be funded at the proper level.
But barring a mass exodus of students within the next month, enrollment shouldn’t be a reason for Pendleton to receive less money in the next budget cycle.
Hermiston School District enrollment has been steadily climbing over the past five years. At the beginning of the 2013-14 school year, the district had 5,104 students. As of this August, the beginning of the 2018-19 school year, Hermiston has 5,838 students. According to data compiled by the Hermiston School District over the past five years, enrollment usually sees a jump in the first month of the school year before trending slightly down throughout the year.
Interim Superintendent Tricia Mooney said the district contracted with Portland State University several years ago to do an enrollment study, which predicted that the district would see continued growth.
“We’re increasing at the high end of what they anticipated,” she said.
She attributed some of the growth to the influx of industry and jobs in the Hermiston area. Hermiston has seen rapid growth with the addition of new Amazon data centers, a Lamb Weston facility, and processing plants like Shearer’s Foods — as well as indirect growth, from employees who work at the Port of Morrow but live in Hermiston.
The district staff has grown as a result. Mooney said this year they added sixth grade, third grade and kindergarten positions, as well as several new positions at the high school.
“That’s where we’re really going to feel the crunch next year,” she said.
She said with state school funding based on the number of students in the district, or average daily membership, there have been some distinct benefits to the growth.
“We’ve been able to grow programs,” she said. “Obviously when we add 30 students, they’re not all in one grade. They’re spread out.”
She said they’ve seen growth in the high school’s career technical education program, as well as the ability to have music and physical education programs at every level — things schools with declining enrollment often have to cut.
But growth has also pressed the district up against facilities that are struggling to hold all its students. The addition of modulars alleviates the need for some classroom space, Mooney said, but not room for other activities.
“Adding modulars doesn’t give us extra gym space, or extra cafeteria space,” she said. “These things can be drawbacks to increasing enrollment.”
A failed bond in May 2017 was intended to addressed capacity issues, but the district will likely consider another new bond in the near future.