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District 196 will look into its future

Independent School District 196 is taking a long-term look into its future in the interest of being better prepared for what is to come.

The district has hired former Minnesota State Demographer Hazel Reinhardt to conduct demographic and housing studies it hopes will provide a clearer picture of what the district might look like a decade or more into the future. The district already produces its own population and demographic projections each year to help predict student enrollment, but finance director Jeff Solomon said those projections are not much good beyond five years. Getting a longer-term perspective is valuable, he said, as the district considers the need for new or different programs. It doesn't make much sense to create a program now if there won't be a need for it down the line, or if enrollment at the school where it is being introduced will eventually crowd it out.

The district currently has a task force looking at the need for new early-childhood and elementary programs, and the demographic study could help inform those decisions.

"It was really important that we have exact figures as we look into the future," superintendent Jane Berenz said.

The district last conducted a comprehensive demographic study like this in 2004. Solomon said he recommends such a study every five or 10 years.

Reinhardt will use the district's information for her projections, but she will also use state and county data to reach her conclusions. Her results will provide information about future population numbers, but also the district's expected economic and racial makeup.

"We've got a good read on our free-and-reduced (lunch) population, our English as a second language population and our minority population, but being able to project those, that's where Hazel can help us," Solomon said.

Reinhardt's study will also take into account housing turnover, something the district's projections don't always do a good job tracking. That has led to a few surprises, as families without children have moved out and families with school-age children have taken their place.

"We have had some growth in areas we haven't expected in the last five years in our elementary," Solomon said. "It's because of that."

Reinhardt started her study in January. Solomon expects to have results in March.

The full package, which includes enrolment projections, a housing study and elementary projections by school boundary area will cost the district slightly more than $30,000.