Families moving away appears to be hitting Willmar's school enrollment


— Willmar Public Schools enrollment has fallen during the current school year, but the decrease appears to be from families moving away from the community.

Business and Finance Director Kathryn Haase delivered a report on enrollment at the Willmar School Board meeting last week.

The district had 4,083 students in grades K-12 on Feb. 10, about the same number as last month, but it's more than 130 fewer students than it had a year ago.

Open enrollment numbers — which indicate students choosing to enroll in another area district — have been more stable since 2021.

State reports for the 2021-22 school year indicate that about 700 students left the district and 200 entered it through open enrollments.

Open enrollment hasn't changed much in the current school year, but the district appears to be losing students because families are moving out of the district, Haase said.

Early on in the pandemic, the number of students in homeschooling increased, she said, but many of them have returned. The number of students attending online schools has been stable, too.

The number of students attending the online school offered by the district is in the low 30s, said Carrie Thomas, director of teaching and learning. Those students are still counted as the district's students.

With the state's unemployment rate at less than 2%, families could be moving away for new jobs, Haase said.

"With this job market, they can get jobs wherever they please," she said.

The district has consulted Hazel Reinhardt, the former state demographer, who has done enrollment projections for a number of school districts, looking at birth rates and other factors. Her report is expected this spring.

In a legislative update, Haase said a bill providing free meals for all students is moving through the Legislature.

It would benefit students, but food service is funded in a separate account, so changes there wouldn't benefit the general fund, she said. Budget cuts in the general fund are due to be made in the spring.

However, the general fund could be affected if people who are getting free meals do not fill out their applications for free and reduced-price meals, Haase said. Some state aid to schools is based on a district's free/reduced meal percentage.