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As Long as We Remember...

October 16, 2003

How Soon Will Student Enrollment Begin To Drop?

Alan Imhoff

Back on August 19th, I wrote an article for The Tentacle entitled "A Critical, Yet Inexact, Science" that related to the science of projecting the increase in enrollment for the Frederick County Public Schools (FCPS).

In that article I had a simple explanation for the "student yield factors" used by the county in connection with its Impact Fee calculations. When applied to new home construction, it would give a theoretical figure to be added to existing enrollment.

Using this methodology a year ago, I projected 721 additional "Equated Students" would be added to the rolls this year. In reality, this past September 30th, the official number of "Equated Students" increased by 405. My estimate was off by 0.84% from the Total Equated Enrollment of 37,642.

On the Total Enrollment figures, the system grew by 262 students or just 0.68%, not the roughly 2% projected by the school system and the student yield factors. (The difference between these two enrollment projections is the accounting process for kindergarten students who only go day, hence they become equated students.)

Why is this important, you might ask?

All along we have been hearing "we are growing too fast," "we are overcrowding more schools," "new housing has got to pay for itself," etc.

Is a growth rate of less than 1% too much to handle?

A recent review of the Maryland Office of Planning (MOP) web site reveals a little about why the rate of student growth in Frederick County is slowing down dramatically.

By the year 2010, just seven short years away, the MOP is projecting 41,640 students in our school system. Roughly an 8.5% cumulative increase or just over 1.2% per year. Yet this year we are half of that annual average rate!

When the current new housing stock (that is now running about 23% below a 14-year average) is combined with a falling birth rate (according to MOP and DHMH - that's the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene) and offset by a shift in demographics (more empty nesters) Frederick County has the potential to see a negative growth rate in school enrollment in just two to three years.

Can't happen, you say.

Oh, but it can. According to the MOP, the Frederick County Public School system is expected to peak in 2012 at 42,690. Then all the demographic indicators point to a downward trend in enrollment.

Household size, according to Census data and demographic calculations continue to show fewer people per household every year. In 1970, it was 3.27 per household; in 1980, it was 2.97; by 2000 it was 2.72; by 2010 it is expected to be at 2.67 in this county.

I do not know how accurate these projections will be because I do not know what assumptions the MOP used in their calculations. I suspect they were using older data that did not take into account the recent downward trend in new home construction. So we may lose another couple of hundred students from that 42,690.

What this means is that at some point, the State probably will not fund new school construction as much as it does today, if at all. FCPS is not the only county facing this scenario. In fact, most of the country will experience this shift in demographics as a natural phenomenon.

If we continue to build the schools on the books for the next decade we may end up like Montgomery County years ago, when many schools were closed. If that is the case, at what point do we accept reality and close schools or will we be willing to pay the extra premium to keep schools open at less than 90% occupancy?

This debate is not new. Since 1994 some of us knew this was heading our way, now it is here. Will we finally begin to address it, or will we continue to wait and see if the demographers are right?

Begin to question our elected leaders on this subject. Ask pointed questions requiring proof of any proposed course of action. And, above all else, remember it is your hard earned dollars (collected through taxes) that will be paying for all those unused seats.

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