WHEELING - Declining student enrollment in West Virginia's public schools is forcing officials to make difficult decisions to keep districts out of financial ruin.
The most recent report from the West Virginia Department of Education shows 37 out of 55 counties lost students from 2008-2012. Although the report shows some counties breaking out of a decades-long pattern of decreasing student enrollment in the state, most counties continue losing students.
In the Northern Panhandle, the counties of Marshall, Hancock, Tyler, Wetzel and Brooke have lost about 600 students in total since 2008, with Marshall County suffering the biggest loss of 195 students. Only Ohio County has seen an increase in enrollment with a net gain of 206 new students. However, Ohio County's enrollment is down 27 percent from what it was about 30 years ago.
"It's difficult to survive," said Nick Zervos, executive director of Regional Education Service Agency 6. "You see counties in trouble in West Virginia because the services they are required to provide by the state are not fully covered by the income they receive."
Since state funding is based on a county's student population, Zervos said, districts are forced to consider what programs, electives and personnel to cut in order to stay out of the red. Electives such as foreign languages are often the first to go, he said, since they are not in the required curriculum determined by the state.
Hancock County has lost 125 students since 2008, but Superintendent Suzan Smith said the district has been preparing for lower student populations for years because enrollment has been steadily declining for decades.
"Obviously, state funding comes in with students and when you lose students, you lose funding and it hurts everybody," Smith said. "We've had to eliminate electives and try to find alternatives to provide the best for our students. What you try to do is the least amount of interruption to instructional time, so as a result, other programs get cut."
Robin Daquilante, superintendent of Tyler County Schools, said the county has opted to eliminate certain elementary school teacher positions in the past years instead of cutting high school electives to make up for lost students. Tyler County has lost 106 students in the past six years.
"One of our difficult decisions has been to cut staff," Daquilante said. "We did not cut any programs."
More schools districts are considering consolidating smaller schools to cut the number of teachers and service personnel on the payroll, Zervos said. He noted large high schools, such as Wheeling Park, John Marshall and Brooke, are able to offer more electives and programs because costs are contained to a single building.
According to Ron Blankenship, superintendent of Gilmer County Schools in central West Virginia, the decreasing student population and lack of adequate funding in the county has spurred school officials to build Leading Creek Elementary School on the border of Gilmer and Lewis counties. The building will house the students of Troy Elementary in Gilmer County and Alum Bridge Elementary in Lewis County.
Blankenship cited the decreased student populations in both schools as a factor in the decision to consolidate. Troy Elementary only houses about 100 students, he said.
Blankenship said the district is now looking to consolidate its remaining three elementary schools to cut staff and put more money toward electives at the high school level.
According to Zervos, the problem of a declining student population will continue as long as the economy in West Virginia also declines.
"The big deal (with student enrollment) is jobs and the economy - that's what drives it," Zervos said. "When you have a lack of jobs, people move."