Population drop impacts Bell County Schools

The recent release of the 2020 census revealed Bell County suffered a population decrease of approximately 16 percent since 2010. The county’s schools have felt the impact of the population drop.

According to Bell County Schools Superintendent Tom Gambrel, the Bell County school system has seen a 17.5 percent drop in students since the 2010 census. The decrease in population and students has caused a significant drop in funding.

“It’s SEEK money and federal money,” Gambrel said. “Census data drives the federal allocations for all of our area schools, and since numbers are down that means less money will come into the county from federal sources. Also, as our population decreases our enrollment decreases, and we receive less SEEK money.”

The decline has resulted in a reduction of approximately $3.2 million per year in SEEK (Support Education Excellence in Kentucky) funding since the 2010 census, Gambrel said.

Gambrel explained SEEK funding comes from the state. These funds are a calculated as a per student amount based on average daily attendance numbers.

“Of course, if you have fewer students, your attendance cannot be as high,” he said.

The drop in population and students has created the need for the school system to make financial cuts.

“Over the years, we’ve done a good job of staying ahead of it,” Gambrel said. “Since 2010 until 2020, we lost 17.5 percent of our enrollment. That makes it very difficult to maintain all the programs, but so far we’ve been able to do that.”

He pointed out the Bell County school system has applied for and received multiple grants to help recover some of the lost funding. Employees have also helped make up for a drop in personnel.

“Our employees have really stepped up to take up the slack,” Gambrel said. “They do a wonderful job. They care about our students, and it shows in how hard they work every day. We have a lot fewer people doing some of the things that we used to have a lot of people doing. Our number of teachers are down, and they’re covering more classes and doing more for our kids.”

Other employees such as custodians and bus drivers are also tackling larger workloads.

“When I started as transportation director nine years ago, we had 56 bus routes,” Gambrel said. “Currently, we have 45 and a half. We’ve had to make adjustments to accommodate the decreased funding that we receive based on the number of students we have enrolled.”

Gambrel said the coal industry’s downturn is the root cause of the population drop.

“Personally, I feel like most of our population loss is due to the war on coal,” he said. “Every business was effected. There was a lot of money in our community because of the people that worked in the coal industry.”

Gambrel mentioned there are not many alternatives open to school systems to combat the population drop.

“The only thing the school district can do is apply for grants to have more jobs available,” he said. “All of the local districts do that.  We also keep as much business as we can in the county, we try to purchase things from local vendors and try to help businesses in our community.”

Gambrel added once a family moves from the area, most do not return.

“I’m hopeful that the Boone’s Ridge project will help us with tourisms and create opportunities four our kids so they can stay here,” Gambrel said.

See a report from Middlesboro Independent School District in the next issue of The Middlesboro News.