School enrollment decreases twice that of other Southeast communities
Petersburg district school enrollment numbers have decreased by 44 percent since 1997—almost double that of Wrangell and Sitka.
It’s a number that Petersburg Superintendent Rob Thomason has been concerned about for some time.
“It’s been a concern in the back of my mind ever since I’ve been here,” Thomason said. “The whole staff knows we’re always looking at the idea that this year does not preclude what it will look like next year. We always have to rethink that.”
The district has seen about a two percent decrease in student enrollment each year. And enrollment numbers are important because it affects grant funding.
Erik Fry, Alaska Department of Education and Early Development Information Officer, said grant funding all comes down to enrollment.
“We take the average number of kids enrolled in a school in October and use it as the basis for funding the school for the next school year,” Fry said.
But it’s not as simple as dispersing a dollar amount for each student. The department of education uses a formula that accounts for various factors that play a role in school districts across the state. Things such as relative district expenses and students with special needs including developmental disabilities or medical issues all enter into the equation and increase the number of actual enrollment by a certain percent.
The state also makes adjustments based on enrollment decreases beyond a certain percentage.
But still, PDS is seeing grant funding decreases. Original total grant funding from last year was $227,751. This year grant funding decreased by around $30,000 and totaled $191,356.
“It’s significant,” Thomason said. “It’s a half a full time position.”
Thomason said it’s natural for communities to see rising and falling demographics and he thinks the timber industry has had an effect.
“If you look back when the timber industry was shut down that’s exactly when our decline began,” Thomason said.“There’s really no good jobs for people with young families outside of the current ones we already have in law enforcement and the hospital and the school district and a little bit with the forest service.”
Liz Cabrera, Petersburg Economic Development Director, agrees. She said in 1997 the US Forest Service changed its management plan that significantly reduced the amount of timber available for harvest.
“As a region we probably lost almost 1,500 jobs,” Cabrera said.
She also said the institution of Individual Fishing Quotas, or IFQs, might have something to do with a lack of young people moving to the region.
Cabrera said the North Pacific Fishery Management Council instituted IFQs as a way to manage the fishery more effectively and safely. The council decided that those who had made significant capital investments in the industry should be given a larger share of total harvestable catch quotas. It used a four-year period to determine catch history and quota share.
“The problem was, there were a lot of problems with that, but one of them was that if you had just started fishing right after that, and that was a significant part of your income, you were out of luck, you weren’t going to get any quota share. All the new entrants really lost out,” Cabrera said.
Soon the shares became more consolidated and less jobs were available.
“In 1996, the year after the implementation of that program, a survey was done,” Cabrera said. “Of the vessels that were surveyed, half of them reported that they had fewer crew members.”
Petersburg along with other Southeast community’s populations are also aging. The number of residents 65 years and older continues to rise.
Despite issues of economy and demographics, the challenges and continues to be, Cabrera said, getting youth to come back home after they graduate high school and leave town—a challenge every rural community in the country faces.