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by Gail Marsh
With 36 of West Virginia's 55 counties projected to lose student enrollment in the next 10 years, Harrison County officials say they are glad for the chance to just remain stable.
Harrison County should gain about 40 students by 2010, according to the Education Policy Research Institute, a nonprofit education research agency located in Charleston. The student population this year stands at 11,933.
"You can't really call that a gain, but it does represent stability," said Carl Friebel, administrative assistant for planning, research and evaluation for Harrison County schools.
Friebel said a stable enrollment is important because it enables the county to start a new program or assign staff to a certain area without the worry of dealing with declining numbers.
"We can localize those statistics to see which areas of the county are growing and which are losing some students, so we can be better plan our programs," he said.
School systems in West Virginia receive money under a state formula that allows for one teacher for every 18 students. A stable student population means no immediate cuts in staffing, Friebel said.
"We watch that area carefully and try to stay as close as we can to the state funding formula. Because of the stable numbers, we haven't had to reduce our staff for several years except through attrition," he said.
James Bennett, newly elected president of the Harrison Board of Education, was the Harrison County superintendent in the early 1980s when the county began losing student population. He said it took a great deal of advanced planning to keep things running smoothly at that time.
"When I was superintendent in 1980 we had close to 16,000 students, and now it's about 12,000. We had to look at staff layoffs, consolidation and other troublesome issues in order to plan for the drop in enrollment," he said.
Bennett has also dealt with an expanding student population. He was superintendent in Berkeley County in the mid-1990s when the county school system began growing by 200 students a year. Berkeley is projected to grow by more than 2,000 students in the next 10 years.
"One of our biggest problems was struggling to get the state Legislature to fund that growth. When 50 of the state's 55 counties were losing population, you couldn't get a whole lot of support," he said.
Bennett said Harrison County should be in fairly good shape with some minor adjustments, because it has already downsized and boasts a number of new facilities. But he said student population isn't the only issue that can be troublesome.
"The Legislature decided to decrease class sizes, and that's fine, but you now need more teachers for the same number of students. At the same time, they set the number of professional staff they would fund from about 55 per 1,000 to 52 per thousand. That's totally counterproductive," he said.
Bennett believes the Legislature is going to have to take another look at the way it funds county systems, including the number of teachers per student.