Hyalite Elementary School

Fourth and fifth grade students walk back into the building at the end of recess on Tuesday, Sept. 22, 2020, at Hyalite Elementary School.

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For the first time in 16 years, the Bozeman School District reported a decrease in its fall student enrollment, according to the county’s enrollment numbers.

The Gallatin County’s fall student count found decreases in elementary school enrollment, steady high school numbers and a sharp increase in private school enrollments, including home schools, throughout the county.

“There was an 111% increase in homeschooling in the elementary schools, so it more than doubled,” said Matthew Henry, the Gallatin County superintendent. “That’s very significant, and that number correlates with a decrease enrollment in the elementary grades, most notably, in the Bozeman and Belgrade districts.”

The number of student home schooling typically increases throughout the school year, but Henry said it was hard to say if that number would increase or decrease this year.

Henry said the effect on those schools experiencing a decline is greater than what the numbers can show, because many of them have been experiencing growth for several years and had planned for it to continue this year.

“It doesn’t show the annual projected increases that they might have anticipated for this year,” he said of the declines.

The Bozeman School District had planned for about a 50 student increase in the elementary district, or kindergarten to eighth grades. Instead, it saw a decline of more than 350 students, said Steve Johnson, the district’s deputy superintendent of operations.

The overall decline in enrollment is expected to impact the district’s budget.

Johnson said the budget would take a $350,000 hit this year and would likely take a larger hit in the future since this year’s enrollment numbers help to determine next year’s budget.

“The impact is going to be much greater, closer to $2.5 million for next year’s budget in the elementary district,” Johnson said.

He said if the district has a rebound in enrollment next fall, then it can apply for additional funding next year to cover the difference.

“If that doesn’t happen, if we don’t increase again, we’re not going to get that money back,” Johnson said of next year.

He said it was a tough situation to be able to plan for, adding the district couldn’t feasibly hire new teachers this fall or next spring hoping those students come back. But if the students do return next fall, the district can take action in response to that increase.

“It’s going to be challenging to predict what will be normal, when will those numbers start rebounding and when will kids start coming back,” Johnson said.

Despite a decrease in the district’s number overall enrollment due to the elementary district’s decline, the high school district saw increased enrollment this fall.

The two high schools grew by about 150 kids, which is higher than the 120 student increase the district had predicted. Johnson said a lot of that growth was due to a large eighth grade class feeding into the high schools, with a 100-student increase recorded in the ninth grade.

Johnson said he thinks the learning environment during the COVID-19 pandemic played a role in the differences between the elementary and high school enrollment. He said it was often easier to home school younger students while older students were often better able to navigate virtual learning.

“Parents are a little bit more reluctant to home school them because of the subject matter and wanting to keep them on track,” he said. “It’s part of why we didn’t lose numbers in the high schools.”

The enrollment decline will also have a direct impact in the planning of additional schools. The district had originally planned to hold a bond election this spring on the development of another elementary school but that would be postponed, Johnson said.

“It’s going to depend on how quickly we’re going to start growing again,” he said. “We’re ready to go when we need to but it likely won’t be this year.”

He added the board trustees hadn’t formally decided but it was unlikely they would decide to push forward with enrollment numbers declining.

Johnson said the district was still in the early stages of planning the budget for the next academic school year and would begin renegotiating the collective bargaining agreement with the Bozeman Education Association in early January too.

“As we develop our budget for next year, this uncertainty is going to take center stage,” he said. “We’re going to need to find a way to offer a balanced budget.”

Bozeman School District is not alone in experiencing enrollment declines this year. Johnson said he has heard from other AA districts in the state, and they have all reported similar decreases in enrollment due to the pandemic.

While families aren’t required to tell the county why they’re leaving the public school system, Henry said many of them had attributed it to the COVID-19 pandemic and the uncertainty around virtual or in-person learning.

“It’ll be interesting to see what happens next year,” he said. “If those kids return to the public schools or if people will decide to keep homeschooling or if the private schools will retain them.”

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Liz Weber can be reached at lweber@dailychronicle.com or 582-2633.