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From the Editor: Superintendent must manage decline in enrollment, funding

Forty years ago, a young comedian named Steve Martin poked fun at the Seventies drug culture by saying, “Let’s get small.”
Martin said he once got so small he could sit on a piece of paper and dangle his feet over the edge.
The next superintendent of St. Mary Parish public schools may see more challenge than humor in getting small. Without some drastic economic or demographic change, the most important job for the successor to Superintendent Leonard Armato will be to manage the schools in a time when enrollment and funding are getting smaller.
Armato announced his retirement last week after more than three years on the job. His tenure has coincided with the development that cast a cloud over south Louisiana governments and the economy: the fall in oil prices that began in late 2014. Just as important as the price of oil, the industry continued to look at shale deposit production in places like Texas and the Dakotas rather than investing in the offshore and deepwater production that benefits St. Mary most.
We saw the results when unemployment spiked, but we’re also seeing them in public school enrollment.
In 2011-12, about 9,400 students were enrolled here. This year, if you count pre-K students, the district serves about 8,600 students.
Federal and state funding are based in part on enrollment. So when the number of students comes down, so does the revenue.
One of the biggest choices of Armato’s tenure involved the decision to close two elementary schools: including M.D. Shannon in Morgan City. More recently, the board eliminated block scheduling in favor of a traditional seven-hour school day. The move saved $1 million at about the time property tax revenue decreased by roughly that amount. But it also means students aren’t exposed to as many different classes and disciplines as they have been.
The sad part of the equation is that when St. Mary attempts to stabilize its economy by diversifying, one of the key attractions for prospective employers will be the quality of the local schools, public and private. So if economic conditions hurt local schools, they’ll also hurt our attempts to put the parish on a better footing.
St. Mary’s quest to become a school district worthy of an A grade from the state almost succeeded last year. The parish’s school performance score came within a fraction of a point of earning an A grade under the state’s accountability system. But the Department of Education is raising the standard, so St. Mary will stay at B for at least another year.
St. Mary got where it is even though 70 percent of its students are from homes categorized as low-income. As a group, kids from less affluent homes face educational challenges. Maybe they don’t have exposure to books or travel. Maybe they’re not as healthy. Maybe they’re more likely to come from homes where substance abuse or divorce make life difficult. They’re less likely to have parents who went a long way in school.
You don’t have to come from a well-off home to do well in school. But it can help. St. Mary appears to be doing well at providing education to the kids who count on it most.
The three east end high schools are all A schools. Speaking as someone who helped shepherd three kids through their teenage years, I’m in awe.
We ran pictures Monday of administrators at schools that won recognition under the state accountability system. Nine schools earned B grades. Eleven were recognized as Top Growth schools for raising their performance scores. Six schools were Equity Honorees for their work with groups facing educational challenges. M.E. Norman and Julia B. Maitland were recognized for excellence in their pre-K programs.
Protecting that progress is the job that awaits the next superintendent.
Bill Decker is managing editor of The Daily Review.

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