School enrollment inches up

Only 28 kindergarteners, but overall total climbs from ’21-22

by Tom Coombe
Despite perhaps the smallest incoming kindergarten class in its history, overall enrollment in Ely’s public school system has rebounded after hitting a new low last year.
Student population that hovered around 500 at one point during the 2021-22 school year has bounced back to a K-12 total of 545 as of Monday, according to reports at the regular school board meeting.
That’s 33 more students than were enrolled in June, at the conclusion of the last school year.
It’s an even larger jump, one of more than eight percent, since totals reported last winter.
The totals show the district has recovered and seemingly regained many of the students it lost after a controversial indoor mask mandate was adopted just prior to the start of the 2021-22 school year.
Enrollment then had tumbled from 559 in September, 2020 to 531 last year.
Within a month, enrollment fell further to 504, and the decline triggered losses in revenue based on student population.
The district had budgeted for 539 students for ’21-22.
School officials welcomed the rebound in enrollment numbers, which coincided with the completion of a major renovation project on the school campus.
“If you build it, they will come,” said board member Rochelle Sjoberg.
“It was a nice increase in enrollment and we hope it stays,” said board chairman Ray Marsnik.
Enrollment totals can fluctuate slightly during the school year, and elementary principal Anne Oelke noted that the total had jumped from 541 to 545 in the preceding four days.
Over the last decade or so, enrollment has swung up and down in Ely after a much longer period of sharp declines.
From 2017 until last year, the district lost nearly 100 students.
That followed a slight period of growth for enrollment.
In 2009, enrollment bottomed out at 538 at the tail-end of a 15-year spiral where enrollment plummeted by over 40 percent, from 921 in 1995 to 538 at the start of the 2009-10 school term.
From 2010-17, student population slowly rebounded, climbing to 596 at the start of the 2017-18 school year.
School board members generally review enrollment numbers at the start of the school year, and both building principals provided the latest count during the monthly meeting.
The current totals show 320 students enrolled in the Memorial (Grades 6-12) Building and another 225 in the Washington (K-5).
Only five of the 13 grade levels have at least 45 students, the same as last year and down from seven two years ago.
Ely’s largest classes are the 59-member sixth grade and the 52-member fifth grade.
The kindergarten class, by contrast, has only 28 students enrolled and three other elementary classes have 35 students or less.
School officials have hailed the last decade of enrollment gains as a sign of stability for a district that endured harrowing financial times in the late-2000s.
The massive enrollment losses from the mid-1990s through 2009 triggered financial woes, a reduction in staff and raised threats of statutory operating debt designation, which occurs when reserves fall into negative balance.
Since then, the district has rebuilt its reserves.
While enrollment has largely stabilized, totals are a far cry from enrollments of 1,500 or more recorded during peak periods of the 1960s and 1970s.
School officials generally keep a watchful eye on enrollment totals, which are the prime factor in determining state aid for the district as well as revenue from operating levy referendums.
Numbers are often fluid at the start of a school year, with new students enrolling and some leaving the district.