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How closed should Elmbrook's borders be?

Out-of-district students could bring in money

Sept. 7, 2010

The Elmbrook School District's potential solutions to a looming budget crisis have sparked an interesting question for district residents.

Do you open your doors to a significant number of students from outside the boundaries of the district, boosting average class size but at the same time reaping financial benefits?

Or do you keep your focus on the "Elmbrook" part of the Elmbrook School District, catering only to students from Brookfield and Elm Grove?

It's a tough balancing act, and taking in more out-of-district students is one option the School Board is considering to help ease a projected $15 million budget gap over the next five years.

Millions could be gained

To get a better grasp of the issue, let's look at the numbers.

Resident enrollment was at 6,500 in 2008-09 and is expected to dip by a couple hundred in the next few years. Long-term projections put resident enrollment anywhere between 5,900 and 6,300 students through 2035.

In 2008-09, 443 nonresident students attended Elmbrook via Open Enrollment, the state's district-to-district transfer program. Elmbrook receives about $6,500 per student through Open Enrollment, but the net benefit works out to about $2,000 per pupil.

During that same school year, another 297 students came to Elmbrook through the Chapter 220 program, which allows Milwaukee Public Schools students to attend suburban districts. Chapter 220 money comes in as additional state aid, so it serves as property tax relief rather than direct revenue.

If the School Board decides to follow a study team's multifaceted approach to the budget crunch - a recommendation that also includes reinstituting 4-year-old kindergarten and possibly closing an elementary school - Elmbrook could add hundreds more Open Enrollment seats starting in 2011-12 and transition Chapter 220 seats into Open Enrollment seats over several years, bringing in millions of dollars of additional revenue.

But doing so could drive nonresident enrollment up to more than 18 percent of the district's total enrollment by 2014-15 and past 30 percent by 2022-23, which begs the question: Should the district devote its resources to educating students from outside Brookfield or Elm Grove?

Costs just aren't known

To Jerry Theder, a member of the study team that made the recommendations, the answer depends on how much actual capacity is needed inside the district's buildings - information he says the School Board doesn't have.

As an analogy, he compares the district's nonresident enrollment to a couple buying a car big enough to transport them and their two children. But they discover that they can transport two extra people in the car, and on every trip, they pile two more people in the car, adding to their expenses.

"It's costing you more money to drive it in all kinds of ways," he said.

In the school district's case, that money takes the form of extra buildings, staff, programming costs and more, Theder said. He said the district is using three or four buildings - at least two elementary schools and the district's administrative offices - that are unnecessary, in his opinion.

Some parents have said they want Elmbrook residents to be the district's "first consideration," and that programs for resident students shouldn't suffer to accommodate students from outside the district.

"Please care about Brookfield first," parent Kris Shibilske told the board.

On the table

Options being eyed to help close the district's budget gap:

• closing an elementary school

• starting a 4-year-old kindergarten program

• increasing class sizes

• taking more Open Enrollment students

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