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Students leave, budget plummets in Stephen-Argyle school district

By Ryan Bakken

Forum Communications

Stephen-Argyle – Central school district anticipated an enrollment drop of 15 students this school year, based on having more graduating seniors than incoming kindergartners.

However, the net decline for the northwestern Minnesota school was 36 students, attributed mostly to families moving elsewhere for jobs. With a value of about $10,000 in state aid per student, the school’s revenue stream took a $360,000 hit.

“That’s a huge impact on a $4.4 million budget,” Superintendent Chris Mills said.

In response, the district plans to hold a November 2013 vote on doubling the operating levy from $1,000 per student to $2,000 per student. Similar referendums to boost the levy this year and in 2011 were defeated.

The $1,000 increase would amount to about $300,000 in additional annual revenue.

Like many rural schools in Minnesota, Stephen-Argyle has seen a steady enrollment decline. In the previous four years, for instance, enrollment fell by 24 students. An anticipated bigger decline turned into a gargantuan decline this fall, however, with the loss of the 36 students.

“We’ve never had that kind of bubble burst in our enrollment projections before,” Mills said.

“It wasn’t from a local business closing, but rather families taking different employment opportunities in different towns,” he said.

Some budget adjustments already have been taken. For the first time, starting this winter, participants in athletics and other activities will be paying a fee. Previously, the school district and the boosters club provided the funding for extra-curricular activities.

“We’re starting the process (toward the referendum),” Mills said. “We want to make sure our communities are well-educated on the issues. A committee will be formed in May.”

Although projections don’t anticipate another dramatic enrollment drop such as this year’s, the numbers show a trend. The grade school classes average 21 students and the high school classes average 26.

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