Rough financial waters ahead unless schools shore up enrollment




SHOREWOOD, Wis. (May 30, 2021) – The Shorewood School District is counting on families to re-enroll students who left local schools last year, purportedly due to the district’s decision to offer only virtual instruction throughout most of the school year. 


While enrollment at private schools such as St. Roberts has grown, the district is facing continued enrollment declines, threatening its financial position because the district is funded by the state based on the number of students. But decline in enrollment began in 2017 – two years before Covid hit.   


District staff are contacting families of about 250 former students who left the Shorewood schools last year. Now that district schools are planning to offer in-classroom instruction five days a week – at least at the elementary level – officials expect many of these families will return in September.


Enrollment changes are affected by factors such as birth rates, changes in the housing market and the perception of Shorewood Schools. A discussion at the community finance group meeting May 17 focused on improving the perception of the school district.  Because many families do not specify why they left the district, it is not clear why enrollment has declined, at least prior to the pandemic.    


District financial projections for the 2021-22 school year assume that 100% of kids who left Shorewood schools would return, but recent indications suggest that the response from families who have already left is not what the administration expected.  In January, the interim business manager, Roger Dickson, recommended that the district allow an additional 48 seats for open enrollment for students who do not live in Shorewood. Without changing any of his enrollment projections, Dickson’s report to the school board at their May 25 meeting recommended opening another 22 seats for a total of 86 (including 16 students on a one-year tuition waiver).  This action brings total Open Enrollment to 218 students, an increase of 65% over last year’s number.  


Open Enrollment brings additional dollars to the district, which Dickson estimated at a total of $500,000 in 2021-22.  Each Open Enrollment student brings only half of the revenue that the district receives for a resident student. If Open Enrollment students fill empty seats in existing classrooms, the district benefits financially, although Open Enrollment does increase class sizes.  


Former school board member Clarke Warren disputes the suggestion that Open Enrollment is based on the financial needs of the district.  At one point, Open Enrollment was promoted to increase minority enrollment, but this has not always worked out since the State Department of Public Instruction requires that Open Enrollment students be selected at random. There is an alternate OE procedure that allows a student to move districts if both districts agree that it is in the best interests of the student.  


At the May 27, 2021, School Board meeting, new member Ellen Eckman asked, “What is the value of Open Enrollment to the District?”  When pressed for a basis for the policy change in opening Open Enrollment seats, School Board President Paru Shah replied, “Our policy regarding open enrollment is that we participate in this program. It is based on the available seats and projections. The ‘reason’ is the math, although as I said, both Roger and Ellen's comments suggest we should be thinking about our long-term financial goals in terms of OE.”  


An enrollment trend that has not been discussed publicly is large declines in minority enrollment.  Both Asian and African American enrollment have dropped by one third since 2017.  The number of students identifying as two or more races has increased, so some of the decline may be a change in how students self-identify. This is a higher decline than white students, whose numbers dropped by 10% during the same period.  In part, the loss of AA enrollment is due to the end of the Chapter 220 program, which ended in 2015.  But other factors certainly played a part.  Sarah Spencer removed her black child from the district for a variety of reasons but cited incidents when her elementary school daughter was called the N-word by other kids.  Spencer was an active parent and volunteered for the District’s Diversity Workgroup.  “Working on the diversity board for five years and just watching and nothing got done and all we did is talk in circles,” Spencer said. 


Reasons for the rise and subsequent fall in Asian enrollment are different.  One Asian American parent, who transferred her children out of Shorewood public schools, noted that many immigrant families came to Shorewood schools after SHS was ranked as the top high school in Wisconsin by US News and World Report in 2013. A number of those families subsequently left, primarily because they were not satisfied with the school culture and approach to academics.  She said, “Being a minority means making sacrifices and adapting to a different culture.  You will only do that if your child’s needs are being met.”