Facing Challenge Of Fewer Students

Enrollment in most Northern Panhandle school districts has been dwindling for several years, as we reported this week. Even in Ohio County, where the student population has grown slightly during the past few years, it is far below historic levels.

Boards of education and school superintendents have addressed the problem – and it is that, because state aid payments are tied to enrollment – in various ways. Some school consolidation has occurred. In some schools, elective programs have been trimmed. Some teachers and other staff have been let go.

At the heart of the problem is the area’s economy. Good jobs in steel making, coal mining, the chemical industry and other businesses have been shed by the thousands during the past couple of decades. As a result, populations have decreased.

We can all hope the natural gas drilling boom will restore some of the prosperity the Ohio Valley once enjoyed. But comparatively few new jobs have been created for local residents in drilling and gas processing.

At some point, if enrollment continues to drop, some districts will have to cut back on programs that are not just desirable but are essential. If it comes to that, how will Northern Panhandle school districts be able to provide the good educations young people need?

Earlier this year the Legislature approved a major public school improvement bill. Lawmakers, educators and others continue to look at every aspect of public schools.

It may be that priority should be given to helping smaller school districts deal with declining enrollment, perhaps through cooperative efforts such as the existing regional education service agencies.

School officials in our area seem to have done good jobs of coping with declining enrollment. At some point, however, they will reach a limit of what can be accomplished without cutting quality. Before that point is reached, a strategy of dealing with it should be devised.