How shrinking numbers are shaping the future of rural education

Education officials say population decline is shaping the future of rural education in the Tri-Cities. 

This comes as political and business leaders are trying to rename the region to help counter this troubling trend. 

“It’s been a problem for a long time but it’s become a problem now that we can’t ignore any longer,” said Sullivan County School Board Chairman Michael Hughes. “It’s painful, nobody wants to do it.” 

Still, many education officials agree that school consolidation is a necessary solution to declining enrollment, either now or in the near future. 

“A future school board will have to take this under consideration,” said Washington County Director of Schools Bill Flanary. 

Numbers from the Tennessee Department of Education show that city schools in Northeast Tennessee have seen increases in student enrollment since the fiscal year 2010. Meanwhile, all county school systems in the area have seen a significant decline. 

If you’re not growing you’re kind of dying and with our numbers, we are moving backward,” said Greene County Director of Schools David McLain. “Rural education has got some hurdles and obstacles to overcome for several years moving forward.” 

“I think the trend we’re seeing now is that younger people are moving closer to their place of employment so therefore they’re moving out,” said Carter County Director of Schools Kevin Ward. 

That cultural shift comes with a tangible cost. 

Since the fiscal year 2010, Sullivan County has lost 1,962 students, according to the Tennessee Department of Education data. Washington County has lost 750 students. Greene County is down 688 and Carter County is down 583. 

Education officials say the state allocates annual funds, in part, based on student enrollment. Looking at these funds alone, Sullivan County has taken a budget hit of nearly $20 million since 2010. Washington, Greene and Carter County have all lost more than $6 million. 

“A 2 percent decline in enrollment does not automatically result in a 2 percent decline in costs. We’re going to run the same number of buses, we’re going to have to maintain the same square footage under a roof,” said Flanary. 

“School systems are just a business like any other business. We can’t run on a deficit year to year. We have to balance our budget,” said Ward. 

That’s why many districts are in the process of closing smaller schools to find savings. 

“We’re at the point now where you’re either going to have to spend money on consolidation or renovation. I’m all for renovation where it makes sense but often it doesn’t,” said Hughes. 

He said renovations would cost Sullivan County millions of dollars they don’t have to upkeep schools half full with teaching positions that, in some cases, the state no longer funds due to declining enrollment. 

CONTINUING COVERAGEPopulation decline is putting the Tri-Cities at a disadvantage for business recruitment, experts say

“That allows you to cut out some of those teaching positions as well and maybe that allows you to take that money you have to provide more programs,” said McLain. 

Many education officials agree that school consolidation gives districts the opportunity to provide more AP, honors and vocational courses. They say its easier to offer these courses at a bigger school, rather than duplicating them at several smaller ones.

“The big picture is providing better and more quality experiences for our kids and giving out kids the opportunity to take courses that might just be a life changer,” said Ward. 

SEE ALSORenaming the Region

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