Enrollment — and some other budget factors — are on the up in Aspen School District
After last year’s dip, student count is back on par in Aspen’s public schools
Around this time last year, there were nearly four dozen “phantom children” floating around the Aspen School District.
It wasn’t because students were dressed up as ghosts for Halloween. In fact, they weren’t real kids at all. The term is one that the district’s Chief Financial Officer Linda Warhoe uses to refer to the gap between number of students actually enrolled and the number of students the district receives funding for.
Colorado uses a five-year rolling average in pupil counts to determine how much funding schools receive. The “smoothing” effect helps cushion school funding from any major dips in actual enrollment that might be caused by, say, a major global pandemic, and it came in handy last year, when the district expected a glut of new students based on interest over the summer but instead ended up with fewer kids than the year before in the Oct. 1, 2020, enrollment count.
Enrollment took a dip below the average last year, so the district received funding for about 45 students who didn’t actually exist, Warhoe said in an interview on Oct. 27. But it isn’t the case this year, according to the Oct. 1, 2021, headcount that shows several dozen more (very real) students in the district.
This year’s verified funded enrollment count is 1,658 students, and Warhoe anticipates that the actual number of students in the district — a “whites of the eyes” count, so to speak — is within that ballpark, give or take a handful of kids, Warhoe said.
“It’s kind of strange, so when you’re comparing funding for last year to this year, we look smooth, but if you looked at (the) whites-of-the-eyes count, we had a decline last year and we went up this year because we opened up open enrollment (to some students who live outside the district),” Warhoe said.
A chart Warhoe presented to the Board of Education on Oct. 27 indicates as much: a blue line tracking the actual student headcount looks like a boomerang, while a yellow line tracking the total funded enrollment is pretty flat.
If you’re crunching the numbers in your head, yes, that does mean the district technically had more money to spend on each actual student because the district was also receiving money for “phantom children” who didn’t exist.
The slightly larger class sizes this year are more financially efficient due to increased enrollment, but per-capita spending doesn’t always reflect the reality in the classroom, Warhoe noted.
“It’s so hard to attach a metric to a child, because each child is unique and has different needs and assessing those needs can be difficult,” Warhoe said, and some classes may have more needs than others.
Funded enrollment isn’t just higher than it was last year. It’s also higher than Warhoe projected it would be for the 2021-22 school year by a baker’s dozen; she initially budgeted school year spending for an estimated 1,645 students and the count ended up at 1,658.
Even so, the district will likely shake out A-OK on the budget front for two reasons, Warhoe told the school board during her presentation this week.
For one, the assessed value on homes grew more than expected, which means more property tax funding for the school. Warhoe budgeted with the assumption of a 7% increase, but it actually grew by 8.58%.
And for another, the state’s budget stabilization factor is smaller than expected. School financing number-crunchers often refer to it as the “B.S. factor” (the abbreviation is wink toward a more unsavory word that starts with those same letters), because it’s like an IOU that never gets paid back. If state budget writers end up 7.5% short, as Warhoe thought they might this year, every district in Colorado gets 7.5% less funding from the state.
But there’s less B.S. this year than Warhoe budgeted for: it’s now looking like it will be closer to 6.7%. That translates to around $125 more per pupil, for a total of $11,502.66 per student in funding from the state instead of the initially budgeted $11,373.69.
The higher enrollment is also a good sign in the long-run for the district, which has faced declining numbers for the last half-decade. Opening up enrollment to some out-of-district students has helped, too.
“You don’t want to play the smoothing game for too long, because it goes away, you know? … It’s trending in the right direction but I don’t see that we’re quite there yet,” Warhoe said in an interview before the meeting. “We still have room for growth on the finance side.”
Aspen Middle School students greet one another on the playground before the first day of the school year on Wednesday, Aug. 25, 2021. Students are required to wear masks in school this year, however, they do not have to wear masks outside. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)
Tallying enrollment by grade level produces a number slightly lower than the verified funded enrollment count. It was 1,636 on Oct. 1, with 135 students at Aspen Community School, 463 at the elementary school, 469 at the middle school and 569 at the high school, according to an email from Assistant Superintendent Tharyn Mulberry.
But those numbers fluctuate day-to-day and aren’t verified by the state, Mulberry said in a followup phone call. On Oct. 27, by his count, the total was 1,639; the number of elementary and middle schoolers had increased by a few and the number of high schoolers had decreased.
“All student counts are snapshots,” Mulberry said. That’s why he also cites Warhoe’s verified funded pupil count — the 1,658 number presented to the Board of Education this week — as the one to count in comparisons.
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