Meeker schools rise to challenge

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By JAMIE HALLMAN

Daily Press writer

Meeker's beauty with scattered ranches along the landscape attracts many outsiders interested in making the area their home. But the people interested in moving to Meeker are often retired or just starting out, reducing the population of young families in the area.

With fewer young families, the school district has been experiencing a decline in enrollment over the last several years.

"It's not a population with young kids," said Mary Strang, president of the board of education.

She said the people who decide to live in Meeker find a way to make a living because they love the quality of life. Over several years the enrollment of the Meeker School District has dropped from 900 students to 580, Strang said.

Superintendent Karen Benner said people are not leaving the area but that the district is graduating larger classes and enrolling a smaller number of students in kindergarten and first grade. She said the declining enrollment is directly tied to the changes in demographics with the current population growing older.

"We see trends in preschool enrollment," Benner said.

Benner said by tracking the number of preschool students, changes in enrollment come with little surprise.

Strang said, in general, schools on the Highway 70 Corridor are experiencing an increase in enrollment while rural schools are on the decline.

Strand said she thinks the lack of diversified industries and jobs is another reason fewer young families are moving into the area.

"We're losing people because of the economy," she said.

The decline in enrollment has not compromised the excellent school programs in the district, Strang said. She said the district has done a terrific job recruiting the best teachers and staff.

"We are very blessed to have exceptional people at each level," she said.

The students at all schools are thriving and, Strang said, the board of education is working to keep it that way.

"We want to give (the students) the best we can," she said.

According to the state's 2002 school accountability report, Meeker Elementary School and Meeker High School have been ranked "high" as far as their overall academic performance.

Maintaining high academic standards is becoming more of a challenge with the financial restraints of having a declining enrollment, Strang said.

She said with a decreasing enrollment, the district loses per-pupil funding. She said the board of education is adamant about maintaining high standards even with the reduction in funding.

"We've worked hard to keep the budget in good fiscal shape," Benner said.

The student enrollment is predicted to drop by 25 students next year. By reporting the average enrollment over four years, the financial impact the district would face was reduced, Strang said.

The state of Colorado funds school districts through the school finance formula that calculates the amount of money a district receives per student. The state allows districts to average the student enrollment over a four-year span as a safety net for districts with fluctuating enrollment. By using the four-year average, smaller schools can report slightly higher enrollment numbers and receive more funds per pupil.

Strang said the loss of per-pupil funding is detrimental to the schools because much of the overhead costs are constant and cannot be recuperated even if fewer students are enrolled.

She said the district is financially sound but cringes at the thought of cutting programs or teachers if funding becomes too tight.

"Our biggest preoccupation is trying to keep the integrity of our academic programs with declining enrollment -- it has to be," she said.

To reach Jamie Hallman call (970) 871-1810 or e-mail hallmanjamie@hotmail.com.

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