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Every school district in Benton County has seen its enrollment drop by 5 percent or more in the last five years, according to data from Oregon Department of Education.

In Corvallis, a prohibitively expensive housing market could be to blame, while the decline in the natural resource industries and a poor job market could be at fault in smaller communities, said agency and local education officials.

Benton County's four public school districts have 600 fewer students than in 2000, a drop of about 6 percent, according to average daily membership figures.

While that might not seem like much, it translates into hundreds of thousands of dollars lost for each district and in many cases, budget cuts.

The state funds schools through a formula that currently allocates about $5,000 per student.

"In 10 years, we lost about 100 kids," said Monroe School District Superintendent Terry Mahler. That would mean $500,000 or more of funding in any given year, and the district suffered to make up for that.

"We cut staff. We cut programs. We cut classes. We cut custodial hours. We cut junior high school sports. We cut everything we could to stay afloat. We took five days off one year," Mahler said.

The district also closed Alpine Elementary School, which some people think led to further decline in that small community, including the demise of its general store.

Monroe expects a slight increase in student population next year, but it will remain frugal.

Alsea has been hardest hit of the local schools. The district also lost 100 students in the last 10 years, and it only has an enrollment of about 150 now. In the past five years, Alsea lost 30 percent of its students and limped through budget and program cuts.

In small towns, the community's pride often is the school athletic teams. The Alsea Wolverines went from fielding JV programs in every sport to barely having enough girls for a high school basketball team, said Billie Winney, administrative secretary.

"There just aren't enough kids to go around. I never thought I'd see the day this would happen. The community has just changed," she added.

Local districts aren't alone in struggling with sparse classrooms, however.

"Roughly two-thirds of the districts in Oregon are losing student population. It's rampant," said Brian Reeder, director of the policy research and analysis section of Oregon Department of Education.

Though the average daily membership of schools is growing statewide, that's sparked by the few districts that are increasing enrollment, such as in suburbs of Portland.

Districts with declining enrollment are predominantly small and rural, Reeder said.

"Part of that is people in general are having fewer children, and also, for economic reasons, people are leaving those smaller communities," he said.

According to the National Center for Health Statistics, the U.S. pregnancy rate dropped 10 percent from 1990 to 2000.

Reeder said that there might be more consolidation of school districts and the closing of schools due to dropping numbers. "It's going to put some pressure on them to keep their doors open," he added.

Smaller communities such as Eddyville, however, sometimes rebel against the closing of their central social institution.

With Eddyville, as with Alsea, Monroe and Philomath, a loss of logging and mill jobs has translated into families moving out of the area, and fewer kids in school.

"I think it's a reflection of the economy in Benton County in general. I think it's just about where we are at in society right now," said Pete Tuana, Philomath School District superintendent.

The Corvallis School District's enrollment decline isn't because of a failing community. Rather, it may be due to one that is too successful.

As Corvallis has become more affluent, people can't afford to live in the city.

"A lot of the people who work in Corvallis live in Albany. … In particular, people of child bearing age may be priced out of Corvallis because they are younger in age, and they don't have the income," said Reeder, a 1975 Crescent Valley High School graduate.

Across the Willamette River, Linn County is experiencing a mix of enrollment trends.

While most school districts are down slightly, Scio and Harrisburg have shown modest gains, and the Greater Albany Public School District is growing by leaps and bounds along with the availability of affordable homes, said Wayne Goates, Albany district student services coodinator.

"If you were to drive around Albany, you would be amazed at the new housing developments that are occurring," Goates said.

"The town is growing, and so is our student population, so much so that the district has formed a committee to look at future growth," Goates added.

"There's no question we are going to exceed our capacity," he said.

Goates expected things to get better in the Lebanon School District, since there is much new construction in the community. The district also could benefit from economic impact of the Lowe's Distribution Center.

The state's average daily membership payments have declined. Last year, the state paid about $5,241 per student.

Some students "weigh" more for funding purposes. Special education students are counted as two students, ESL students count as 1.5, and students in poverty count as 1.25 students. Kindergarten students count as half a student.

Kyle Odegard covers Philomath and rural Benton County. He can be contacted at kyle.odegard@lee.net or 758-9523.

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