Lack of family-wage jobs drives residents elsewhere as retirees head to the areaWhen Ken Chapman moved to the Astoria School District as a speech and drama teacher at Astoria High School, there were five canneries packing fresh sockeye salmon and albacore into tins. The Barbey and Union canneries were still open, as was Bumble Bee, which employed hundreds of Astorians.
The year was 1967, and even though the town was long past its heyday when the working waterfront saw 500 cargo ships dock a year, fish and timber kept the local economy humming and parents in family-wage jobs.
But then the fish stocks started to slip further and the canneries boarded up their windows or sold out. The port stopped shipping logs, curtailing longshore work and logging. The 1973 Endangered Species Act protected species on the brink of eradication but strained the livelihoods of blue-collar workers. In the 1980s, the government implemented fishing quotas and cut back seasons. They started buying back boats. In a story long-time residents know all too well, the town's glory days disappeared, and the community was faced with the hard reality of moving forward with its backbone reduced to fragments.
The ebbing of Astoria's main industries has affected everything from its demographics to its businesses. And its schools - which have been harder hit by the changing economic reality of Astoria than many people realize.
The term that comes up time and again in school budget discussions as a reason for trimming teachers and electives is "declining enrollment." It's an explanation second only to "state cutbacks."
But what exactly is happening with Astoria's enrollment? And how can the district be worried about student counts when the buzz of Astoria's rebirth has hit even The New York Times?
Few jobs mean few young peopleThis fall, the Astoria School District will educate 100 fewer students than it did last year, and 500 fewer than it did in 1970, 35 years ago. The district had 2,126 students enrolled in 2003-04; by 2014, it is looking at 1,845 students, with between 100 and 200 students leaving within the next five years.
The numbers, which were provided by the Astoria School District, are based on a cohort chart. A cohort chart takes a stable number for kindergarten enrollment, then projects it into the following years. If a district knows there is a negative or positive impact ahead, such as a blue-chip company setting up shop in town, it can build that change into the chart; however, no such change is expected in Astoria. Barring the opening of a major new business or industry, enrollment rates will continue to fall.
The decline is a combination of factors: the bleeding resource-based industry that has caused people to move, a lack of family-wage jobs to attract young parents, an aging population and the effects of a small cohort.
"Since fishing, logging and the port started to die out and the canneries closed, people have been leaving the area," Chapman said. "It's becoming a place where people retire to live near the beach and a tourism town."
Astoria School Board member Bob Ellsberg came here 29 years ago when a plywood mill operated in the center of town and workers were rumored to make $75,000 to $80,000 a year. Bucking the trendWhile the public schools on the coast are watching the slow drain of students, the area's private schools are actually gaining students.
North Coast Christian School is expecting a slight increase of five students this coming school year, which will put the school slightly more than 100 students.
"We're driven by how much people can afford to pay extra to send their kids to school," said Principal and Pastor Chris Schauermann.
The school costs between $1,500 and $2,600 per year.
He said that the emphasis on Christian principles, safety and proximity to parents' work and home, academics and class sizes often encourage parents to give private schooling a try.
Likewise, Star of the Sea principal Terry Campbell is expecting a strong year for enrollment. He expects a 5 percent increase, which will put the school at approximately 120 students. Student enrollment has shown a steady increase during the past five years, rising from numbers in the upper 80s to where it is today.
Campbell said that the people fall in love with the culture of a private school and a good percentage of students stay enrolled from year to year.
He stressed that Star of the Sea supports the efforts of public schools and doesn't want to consider the school in competition.
"I think people are looking for alternatives," he said. "We provide a different structure, faith-based education, small classrooms and a rigorous curriculum."A two-year forestry degree could get someone a prime job with Crown Zellerbach.
"(Now) when you're 18 to 20, you start looking for places where you can find work," he said. "On the Oregon Coast, the opportunities in those blue-collar jobs aren't as common."
Ellsberg said that when residents look around and see all the construction going on in the city, they assume it's growing. But according to census data, the people who are coming here are retiring.
"As a result, even though we do have more housing stock, and people are buying second homes here, the number of people living in the houses hasn't increased," he said.
The fact that Oregon is one of the fastest-graying states in the nation also contributes to the enrollment issue. An aging population has fewer children. Finally, populations are not level across every age group. For example the baby boom and the baby boom echo meant uneven populations were coming through the school system. Today, many schools are seeing smaller class sizes in the elementary grades.
Schools closed, teachers reducedWhat it boils down to for the district's three elementary schools, its junior high and high schools is: fewer students, less state funding. And since Measure 5 made local funding for schools part of a bygone era, practically all the money to run schools comes from the state.
When the Astoria School District budgeted for the 2004-05 schools year, it cut an estimated $500,000 out to make up for a projected loss of 100 students, at approximately $5,000 per student.
"Enrollment is always an issue because that is how your funding is based," said Mike Sowder, Astoria School District superintendent.
Reducing moneys when students move out of the district seems like a logical move, but according to school officials, head-count funding breeds complications for districts. Money doesn't follow each student individually. Instead it is pooled to provide additional class offerings, activities and supplies - not just teachers. So when students leave, not only is it more difficult to figure out what grade levels should sacrifice teaching time, but the cuts also trickle down to the "extras" schools provide.
Complicating the matter further is that enrollment is at best an educated guess. In Astoria, the actual enrollment numbers from 2003-04 were less than the district budgeted for, so the district had to make some adjustments in January - such as tightening up the use of substitutes and decreasing teaching positions - to help make up for the loss.
When the numbers don't add up, districts often turn to closing schools. Astoria closed Central in 1977 when enrollment numbers dipped to 1,845. Enrollment reached an all-time low in 1983 with 1,622 students. And even while district enrollment was boosted in 1991 with the addition of Lewis and Clark students, and again in 1996 with the addition of Olney School students, the district closed Olney in 2002. During its final year, Olney had 64 students and was dropping. Just 50 were slated for the following year.
"It didn't justify the expenditure to run that building," Sowder said.
Seaside, Warrenton-HammondOther local districts have faced similar enrollment problems. Five to 10 years ago, Seaside School District was losing 15 and sometimes 45 students per year, all from different grade levels.
In 1996, the district had 1,818 students; by 1999, enrollment had dropped to 1,680.
The district became curious and followed up on where they were forwarding student records. Officials found that most families were moving to the Willamette Valley or out of state.
"We started questioning some of the families and found out it was primarily for economic reasons," Superintendent Doug Dougherty said.
The Warrenton-Hammond School District also dealt with a steady decline, in 1998, 1999 and 2000 especially.
"The general consensus was that as the economy heated up in the valley and the Intels of the world were busy hiring folks, people moved from the coast to some good-paying jobs in the valley," Superintendent Craig Brewington said. "When the economy tanked, our enrollments pretty much stabilized."
The number of students during the 2004-05 school year will be comparable to last year, he said. Slightly more than 800 students were enrolled in the district last year.
Statewide phenomenonEnrollment has been a headache for budget committee members on the coast for decades.
"I don't know of any district on the coast that is not declining in enrollment," said Kent Hunsaker, executive director for the Confederation of Oregon School Administrators.
But now the rest of Oregon is feeling the pinch. During the last biennium, statewide enrollment came in far under what projected.
"Even those districts that have traditionally grown a lot have slowed down," Hunsaker said. "The whole enrollment piece is a statewide phenomenon to a certain degree.
According to Oct.1 2003 counts reported by school districts, Oregon had 552,312 public school students, a decrease of 1,759 since the prior fall. And slow growth is slated to continue into 2007.
Out of 199 Oregon districts, 122 experienced a decrease last year. Every community has its own story explaining the decreases. While Astoria's account is tied to resource-based jobs, in Portland, Pleasant Hill and Ashland it's the high price of housing, in other places it's the bust of the high-tech industry and the enticement of the Vancouver School District in Clark County, Wash., which isn't saddled by this state's cuts to education.
"It's truly one of these things that unless there is a huge change in the economy and family wage jobs that we're going to see it continue," Hunsaker said.