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August 23, 2004

School Daze, Dear Old Golden Rue Daze

Alan Imhoff

Frederick County Public Schools has begun another school year and shortly after September 30th, Ray Barnes, executive director of Facilities Services, will release the annual report of how many students are in each school.

According to the recently published Educational Facilities Master Plan Annual Update, July 2004 pages 26- 27, the FCPS projects there will be 38,462 Full Time Equivalent (FTE's as they are known) occupying the 57 schools in the system.

The actual FTE enrollment published last September 30th had 37,642 students in the system, therefore planning-wise we should expect to see about 820 more FTE's this coming September 30th.

But the "best laid plans of mice and men" are forced to handle shifts in county demographics primarily as a result of the changing economics of the housing market and the families moving in.

Mr. Barnes' office does a very good job of forecasting student enrollment based on a variety of standard tools and makes best guess assumptions on where new housing will be constructed in time to impact the coming school year. Most of the time they are right on target, however occasionally they are blindsided by unforeseen demographic shifts in a particular school attendance area.

So what will September 30th tell us this year?

There are other projections out there, some done by FCPS, that indicate perhaps only one half of the 820 students will be there. Last year the school system increased by only 405 students, so 410 this year does not seem unrealistic. One model done last October suggested only 130 would be added to the total.

Why such a range from 130 to 820?

It boils down to assumptions. One of the biggest is that all enrollment growth can be attributed to new housing starts. That was probably a safe assumption back in 1993 when 50% of all home sales in the county were new homes. Now close to 80% of home sales are "resales" of existing homes, a major demographic shift that makes it much harder to project enrollment.

A second assumption is that formulas used in the county's Impact Fee calculation have not been adjusted to reflect these changing demographics, hence are overstating the impact of students generated by new housing, maybe by as much as a third.

So what you may ask if we are off by one or two hundred students?

This is perhaps the most expensive part of being off the mark as it relates back to that report mentioned earlier and the 10-year growth projections. Those projections in turn drive the school construction schedule to meet those projections.

If enrollments are consistently over or under estimated, the costs can be very high and decisions difficult. If we underestimate, we will not have enough classroom space. Redistricting and portables will continue unabated. If we overestimate, we will be left with a system under capacity and with wasted space. For those who remember, think back to Montgomery County when they were closing school buildings not so long ago.

If the projections are correct in the FCPS facilities report, the system will have approximately 40,632 seats available when school starts for the 38,462 students expected. This is an admirable 95% capacity at the system level when compared to not too many years ago of over 102%. Yes, there are schools that are way overcrowded, but steps are being taken to address them.

But what if in our zeal to bring the system to a 90% level coincides with a major shift in demographics that we have not fully identified that produced far fewer students than the current models predict?

The Maryland Office of Planning, as well as local planning departments, acknowledges that national statistics show that school age enrollments will taper off over the next decade. What if Frederick County exceeds the norm and has fewer and fewer new students show up each year while we continue to add capacity?

This September 30th will be potentially the 3rd consecutive year of a drop 200 to 300 less new students added to the system even as new housing starts have returned to historic averages. In 2001 we saw 1,169 added to the system, 2002 was about a 50% drop to 672 and last year saw another 40% drop to 405.

So will we see another 40% drop to just 243 new students, or will we see the 820? I eagerly await the official numbers. Then FCPS and the Board of County Commissioners may have some very difficult decisions to make.

For those who might remember, I wrote about this once before here on The Tentacle on October 16, 2003, with the article entitled "How Soon Will Student Enrollment Begin To Drop?" And by the way, the model that projects only 130 new students is one I have been maintaining since 1994 with a system-wide accuracy last year of 99.9%, a goal I hope to maintain.



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