Rural Alabama

The Long Decline: In Depopulating Counties, What Happens to Schools?

The entrance of Kinterbish Jr. High School in Cuba, Ala., Thursday, Nov. 16, 2023. (Will McLelland/Alabama Reflector)

From the outside, Kinterbish Junior High School in Cuba, around 30 minutes from Livingston in Sumter County, looks like any other school building in the state. It’s made of brick and painted purple, with lettering visible around the outside.

But Sumter County Schools is closing this building. It’s the second they’ve closed in six years.

Depopulation is a key issue for the district. Sumter County has not grown since 1940, and in recent decades the population has shrunk still further. In 2000, the U.S. Census recorded the district with a population of 14,798. In 2020, it had fallen to 12,345, a nearly 17% decline.

The decline is even faster in the student body. According to the Alabama State Department of Education, Sumter County Schools had about 1,700 students enrolled in the 2014-15 school year. In the 2022-23 school year, it had fallen to 990, a 41% decrease.

Alabama’s aging population means that K-12 enrollment is shrinking statewide. From 2014 to 2023, the state’s student population fell from about 749,000 students to 729,000, a 2.5% decrease. But the numbers are sliding much faster in rural Alabama. In 17 rural Black Belt counties, student enrollment fell from 35,911 in 2014 to 28,785 in 2023, a 19.8% decrease.

According to a 2023 report from the Center for Public Education and the National School Boards Association, 40% of Alabama’s public school students were in rural schools in 2019.

When the student population shrinks, so does the district itself. Less money comes into the district. Schools close, facilities fall into disrepair and extracurricular activities are cut.

“And so when we have students who leave or parents who move away for better job opportunities, then that does cause a strain on the district because those funds leave with those students,” said Marcy Burroughs, the superintendent of Sumter County School, who came to the district last year.

Those who are unable to leave are often in the poorest households. In Sumter County Schools, about 89% of students are economically disadvantaged, compared to 65% statewide.

Funding models

Sumter County’s school system is facing a myriad of issues over its finances and personnel. The Alabama State Board of Education in August authorized a state takeover of the system, putting Burroughs in charge. Disagreements on the school board over hiring teachers and concerns about the district’s handling of COVID money were factors in the takeover.

But Sumter, like most schools in the state, suffers from a lack of state and local funding.

Across the country funding for schools tends to be tied, directly or indirectly, to the number of students. There are nuances to each state’s funding model, but in Alabama the tie is more indirect. Lawmakers could potentially move towards a new funding model.

Alabama funds schools mostly through the state’s foundation program. State Schools Superintendent Eric Mackey said most of the program is based on teacher units, but student population is used to make a calculation for the number of units.

But fewer students generally means fewer state dollars for local districts. In a state where local governments can raise little revenue for schools through property taxes, that becomes an issue.

“There’s always talk about changing the foundation program and, certainly, if there’s a strong push to rewrite it in the coming years I’m sure that that the whole rural versus urban will be a part of the discussion, but I don’t have any particular advice on that at the moment,” said Mackey.

High-poverty schools can access federal money known as Title I funds. But Burroughs said that they are trying to avoid paying for too many teachers out of their Title I funds.

“We don’t have the funds to pay teachers or teacher salary longterm,” said Burroughs.

The school district has 51 teachers and four vacancies.

Another challenge is encouraging people to live in Sumter, which had a population of around 11,800 in 2022, according to the U.S. Census. The county has lost roughly 2,000 people since 2010. Burroughs said over email that the school district currently has 51 teachers and four vacancies.

“But when you think about the age group that is getting into education right now, they want to be in an area where if I’m hungry at 10, 11 o’clock at night, I can go somewhere and get something to eat,” said Burroughs.

Senate education budget chair Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, and House education budget chair Danny Garrett, R-Trussville, indicated last session that there were talks about changing the funding model for Alabama schools.

Orr said in a phone call in December that they are having conversations about changing the funding formula, but weights have focused more on special needs and students in poverty. Orr said none of those plans were finalized or on paper at that point.

As for depopulating school districts, “that has not entered the discussion.”

Closing schools

Kinterbush would be the second school closed by the district in the last decade. North Sumter Junior High School closed at the end of 2018.

Jason Becker, chief product officer from Allovue, an education finance technology company, said that there are three phases for depopulation in school systems based on the speed and impact.

In the first phase, as populations shrink, costs to run schools get higher. Becker said that, in this stage, those higher costs should be recognized and provided support.

In the second, consolidation takes place.

“You’ve got a high cost structure, and we need you to join up with folks who are nearby to reduce that cost structure,” he said.

In the third phase, consolidation is no longer an option because the schools have become so remote.

“It’s not possible to bus a kid three hours to go to school,” Becker said.

Becker said that no one has really come up with a good solution for the third phase. He said that some areas have moved towards online learning, but he’s not sure that it’s been successful for students.

Mara Tieken, a rural schools expert at Bates College in Maine, said that the benefits of closing schools is inconclusive.

Tieken said that school consolidation might help schools have the financial resources for more extracurricular activities.

But because consolidation often means longer travel times for students who live far away from a school, they likely won’t be able to take advantage of them.

“If your parents can’t get there for parent-teacher conferences or can’t be involved in the school in meaningful ways, what’s going to happen to parent engagement then,” she said.

She said the closing of schools is also the closing of an important community structure.

Tieken said that there’s also a high disparity between rural students and suburban and urban students. She said those disparities could be aggravated by further depopulation in rural areas. If schools don’t have the population to support them, they might not have the curriculum to best prepare students for college. If schools have to let go of guidance counselors, then they lose college counseling.

“I think all of the kind of challenges around college-going would just be exacerbated by low funds and small populations,” she said.

In the 2023 Why Rural Matters school report, Alabama was tied for second with Arizona as the highest priority state, behind Mississippi. The report said that Alabama is notable because of low per-pupil educational spending and high transportation costs.

The report also noted that just 2% of Alabama’s rural school districts are small. Tieken said that these large districts are particularly complicated for transportation when districts depopulate. Tieken said that a district she worked with in Arkansas had a school close, which led to students getting bused two hours each way to the next closest school. If the students were awake 16 hours, a quarter of those are on a bus, she said.

“That’s insane, that’s not developmentally appropriate, that’s not, in my mind, ethical,” she said.

Burroughs said that the students from Kinterbish will not have a major commute to their new school.

Broadband access

On paper, access to online learning could address some of the issues faced by rural districts.

A 2021 report from the National Association of State Boards of Education recommended that state boards seek broadband mapping and support funding for broadband infrastructure, among other measures.

But whether broadband could fill in the gap is an open question. According to the Why Rural Matters report, nearly 20% of rural households in Alabama lack broadband access. The state has offered grants to expand access in recent years, but that has left many poor, rural counties behind.

Mackey said that no schools have entered this stage where no schools are nearby with online as the only option. But that’s only because the Department is running schools that are not cost effective.

“We do maintain some schools in the state that have fewer than 100 students, but there are fewer and fewer of them and I suspect in the future there will be even fewer still, but that some of them are operating simply because of the remoteness of the schools,” said Mackey.

Building up

Sumter County educators are doing what they can to improve the facilities they have. Parts of Livingston Junior High are closed to allow renovations, including painting, flooring and work on rest rooms and ceilings. On a recent visit, parts of the school were closed to students, moved to other places in the building. A spare earbud could be seen in an empty classroom.

Burroughs said she wanted to put epoxy on the floors to make them easier to maintain.

“So, there’s just an extensive upgrade to just bring it up, to just make it more modern, bring it up to date,” she said.

Burroughs said that the school is speaking with architects still in the planning phases with architects. Burroughs had written a grant for the Lieutenant Governor’s fund for upgrades.

“Look around,” she said about needed upgrades.

Marcus West, principal of Livingston Junior High, said that the upgrades to the school are important because it would help the students feel good.

“Any kind of upgrade makes kids feel more welcome,” he said.

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