Joplin schools face uncertain future

JOPLIN, Mo. —Joplin school officials estimate that about 54 percent of the district's 7,700 students lived in the path of the May 22 tornado that damaged roughly 8,000 homes and more than 500 businesses.

That is posing a challenge for educators in Joplin and surrounding communities because of uncertainty about how many students will return in the fall or transfer to neighboring districts.

Area superintendents were holding a private meeting in Joplin on Wednesday to find ways to get a grip on how school enrollment numbers will change.

Joplin superintendent C.J. Huff has said all students are welcome in his schools when classes resume Aug. 17, regardless of where their parents have moved.

"It's challenging," said Ashley Micklethwaite, president of the Joplin Board of Education. "We don't have any firm numbers, and we won't."

The Joplin district has posted an enrollment survey on its website, joplinschools.org, to get a better idea of what to expect in August. Micklethwaite said parents are encouraged to complete the survey.

"We're being proactive," she said.

"Hopefully we won't have any big surprises in August."

Neighboring districts such as Carl Junction and Webb City also are unclear about what impact the tornado will have on their enrollment numbers. Carl Junction superintendent Phil Cook said between 12 and 20 parents have called to ask about enrollment in his district, but the expected increase in his school's numbers won't be known for some time.

"I don't have a good number right now," he said.

"It could be 50; it could be a couple hundred. Right now it's just speculation."

Webb City superintendent Tony Rossetti said the picture is equally fuzzy in his district.

"I don't think people know where they're going to be until the dust settles," he said.

Rossetti said some districts near Joplin could experience enrollment spikes that last a school year or longer, and some could be permanent.

"The uniqueness of the situation has created some interesting avenues we have to explore," he said.

Other districts that don't have much room to expand don't expect much of an influx because housing options are limited in their communities.

Seneca superintendent Steve Wilmoth said any increase in his district will be limited because of the lack of available housing.

He said the Chamber of Commerce has told him there was an increase in real estate activity, so he anticipates some rise in enrollment, but he isn't sure how much.

"If kids show up, we'll do our best to serve them," he said.

In Pittsburg, Kan., superintendent Destry Brown said about a dozen families have contacted him about transferring their children from Joplin. He said the Pittsburg schools are used to fluctuations because of new students whose parents move to the community to study at Pittsburg State University.

Brown said the transfer procedure is not complicated.

Enrollment numbers help determine the amount of state aid each district receives, so getting accurate numbers is imperative as school officials prepare for the upcoming school year. In Joplin, the average expenditure per average daily attendance is $7,274, according to the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

Huff, the Joplin superintendent, said it's likely an enrollment loss and drop in assessed valuation will result in decreased revenue for the district.

That doesn't mean neighboring districts will receive any windfalls from taking in additional students. Rossetti said increased enrollment brings increased staffing costs and need for more building space.

"We just want to serve families that are displaced," said Cook, in Carl Junction. "The other thing is if we do happen to see a couple of hundred students come to Carl, we need to look at staffing."