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Monroe County: school enrollment’s flat; budgets aren't. Why?

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As schools opened last week, school district enrollment in the Rochester area was pretty much holding steady: a small decline here, a small uptick there. There's no significant difference between the 2016-2017 school year and 2018-2019, says Sherry Johnson, executive director of the Monroe County School Boards Association.

You might assume, then, that school budgets should be holding steady, too. Instead, many districts' budgets are increasing, and Johnson says she hasn't heard any districts in Monroe County talking about shrinking classroom sizes or closing schools. There are several reasons, she says.

Even if a school district loses 50 or 100 students, Johnson says, operating costs are increasing at a pace that exceeds the loss of students. Building maintenance, energy, insurance, and transportation costs increase annually, and school officials have little control over that.

Another factor: lawmakers and state education officials continue to increase the requirements placed on teachers and administrators. These mandates are usually not funded and old mandates are seldom removed, she says.

For instance, Johnson says, there are new requirements concerning student immunizations. Schools now have to conduct surveys of their students' behavior and their attitude about school, and they have to report the results to parents and the community. The state's controversial Red Flag Law has gone into effect, allowing family members, law enforcement officers, and school officials to seek a court petition to seize guns from people who appear to be at risk of harming themselves or others. For school officials, this can be a time-consuming process.

School buses can now deploy "stop arm" cameras that record license plates of drivers who illegally pass stopped buses. Though the stop-arm cameras are optional, most districts will implement the cameras to encourage drivers to obey the law and help reduce the risk of student injuries and deaths, Johnson says.

These types of changes generally involve training, new equipment, and sometimes additional staff, all of which costs money, Johnson says.

Staffing needs are changing, too, she says. Schools are being asked to provide more than ever before: meals, mental health services, after-school programs, and increased safety and security measures. The state is now requiring schools and school districts to provide data about students' academic performance that is much more detailed than it was previously. And if districts elect not to collect the data and report it to the state, it can put the district's financial aid at risk.

All of this is happening as the profession itself undergoes a dramatic change, Johnson says. School officials have to invest more in recruitment, training, and retention because fewer college students are pursuing teaching careers. There's a shortage of teachers in the Rochester region, as there is across the state, and the shortage is no longer limited to specialties such as bilingual, special education, math, and science teachers.

"There's even a lack of elementary teachers," Johnson says. The number of college students choosing teaching as a career has shrunk, she says.

"When an opening came up in one of our school districts, it wasn't unusual to receive 200 or more applications." That's all changed, she says. "Recruitment and retention is now an across-the-board issue, and it's an across-the-country issue," she says.