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School enrollment dips in Ely

by Tom Coombe

Ely school officials found some silver linings Monday in clouds that might otherwise be described as gloomy.

Although overall K-12 school enrollment is now at 530 students, the lowest start-of-the-year total recorded in at least a century, that’s more than the district budgeted for this year and only six fewer students than were in the hallways at the conclusion of the 2022-23 school year.

The district also has more students enrolled than it did for much of the 2021-22 school year, when totals hovered around 500 students during the midst of a controversial mask mandate, and the decline this fall was minimal despite an incoming kindergarten class of only 19 students.

High school principal Jeff Carey noted that the district made some gains in enrollment, given the differences in numbers between the graduation of a 42-member senior class and the arrival of the small kindergarten group.

“If you look at those enrollment numbers I think we ended last year at 536 (students),” said Carey. “And with 42 seniors leaving and only 19 kindergarteners coming in we are only down six kids. ”

“That’s a good accomplishment,” said board chairman Ray Marsnik.

School officials keep a watchful eye on enrollment numbers, which are tied to state per pupil funding and the district’s financial health.

The numbers can be in flux, particularly early in a school year, and superintendent Anne Oelke noted that Ely added one student in the last week since the opening day of school, when 529 students were enrolled.

“Hopefully we can add a few more and break even from where we fell,” said Oelke.

Enrollment in Ely has fallen precipitously through the decades, falling nearly in half from 921 in the fall of 1995 to 538 in 2009.

From 2010-17, student population slowly rebounded, climbing to 596 at the start of the 2017-18 school year.

A slight dip followed and the start of the Covid-19 pandemic ushered in further drops, to 531 at the start of the 2021-22 school year to as little as 504 the next month.

The district has since recovered from those dips, even with the small kindergarten group this year.

That figures to be anomaly as school officials said last month they expect about 40 kindergarteners among the first-year group in the fall of 2024.

Overall, the district currently has 15 fewer students enrolled than it did this time a year ago.

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 333 students enrolled in the Memorial (Grades 6-12) Building and another 197 in the Washington (K-5).

Only four of the 13 grade levels have at least 45 students, down from five last year and down from seven three years ago.

Ely’s largest classes are the 61-member sixth grade and the 55-member fifth grade.

The kindergarten class, by contrast, is the smallest with 19 students enrolled and only one elementary class - fourth grade (42) - has more than 40 students.

With enrollment ranging in the 500s for a least 15 years, it’s an era of relative stability in enrollment after massive losses from the mid-1990s through 2009.

Those declines 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.

Peak K-12 enrollment in Ely was in 1967, when the district reported enrollment of 1,775.

Enrollment last exceeded 1,500 in 1977 (1,502) and last topped 1,000 in 1985 (1,019).

The last year with 750 ore more student was 2001 (758).

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