Job loss is the likely culprit behind decreased enrollment at area schools, according to one local superintendent.
School enrollment has decreased overall since 2012 in four of the five Crawford County school districts.
While kindergarten enrollment has gone up and down, overall enrollment for Van Buren and Alma, the two largest school districts in the county, has decreased steadily since 2012.
Enrollment numbers are tied to other variables such as economic activity, said Alma School District Superintendent David Woolly.
“People move to a community mostly for reasons other than schools,” Woolly said. “The number one reason people move is jobs.”
In Alma, overall enrollment decreased from 3,379 at the beginning of the 2012-13 school year, to 3,165 in 2016-17. In Van Buren, enrollment decreased from 5,920 in 2012-13 to 5,817 in 2016-17, though current enrollment is 5,857 - up from the beginning of the year.
Overall enrollment also decreased in Cedarville and Mountainburg school districts, but saw a minor increase of about seven students at the Mulberry/Pleasant View Bi-County School District.
Outside of Greenwood School District, which has increased enrollment because of economic growth at Chaffee Crossing, Sebastian County schools are seeing the same trend of decreasing enrollment, Woolly said.
“I think the number one reason for all of that is the closing of the Whirlpool plant,” Woolly said.
Whirlpool closed its plant in Fort Smith in 2012, laying off a remaining 1,100 employees. About 3,500 people had lost their jobs at the plant in the years leading up to the closing.
Other area companies that supported Whirlpool also closed or laid off workers in the aftermath. When Whirlpool left, the employment base of the greater Fort Smith area “took a hit,” Woolly said.
Woolly stressed that its nearly impossible to find evidence of why enrollment goes up or down and his statements are pure opinion.
“You can have opinion, you can have ideas, but as to why enrollment changes is almost unknowable,” Woolly said.
Decreases in enrollment numbers line up with a decrease in Crawford County’s population from its peak of 61,987 in 2010 to 61,697 in 2014, according to the most recent data from the U.S. Census Bureau.
In Sebastian County, there was a decrease in population from its peak of 127,370 in 2012 to 126,776 in 2014.
Woolly also pointed to the recession and subsequent drop in the housing market that hit the nation, and Crawford County, just a few years earlier.
“Houses quit being built here…and it’s never restarted,” Woolly said. “I mean, there are houses being built, but it’s not nearly at the rate that historically they’ve been built in this community.”
Despite decreased enrollment, and a subsequent decrease in district funding from the state, Woolly stressed that the quality of education provided by his school district remains the same.
While some teachers have retired or resigned to take up new positions, no teachers have been laid off from the school district, Woolly said.
“If you ask how enrollment drops have affected ... how we provide opportunities for students, the answer is, not at all,” Woolly said.
Woolly predicted that the next likely impact to enrollment at his district will be the completion of Interstate 49 between Alma and Barling.