Where have all the students gone?
Student enrollment numbers this fall in the Lake Tahoe Unified School District appear to be part of a “disturbing trend,” school officials report.
In its required annual October enrollment report to the state, the district reported 116 fewer students this year.
The drop from 5,978 last year to 5,862 this year may mean that future staffing levels will have to be re-evaluated, said LTUSD Business Manager Ralph Johnson.
“We’re actually closer to where we were back in October of 1995,” said Johnson. “We’re seeing most of the decline at the elementary school level – that does not bode well for the district.”
The 1.9 percent drop in South Lake Tahoe appears to be bucking the trend of the rest of the state, where a strong economy continues to attract families from other states and countries.
Each year, due to South Tahoe’s high transiency rate, the district loses students. However, until recently, fairly consistent overall enrollment growth each year has helped to compensate for the loss due to transiency.
This year, South Tahoe High School – the only school in the district to see growth – counted 1,385 students last year and 1,436 this year.
South Tahoe Middle School dropped from 1,279 last year to 1,252 this year.
The district’s five elementary schools saw the most dramatic drop from a combined 2,924 last year to 2,855 this year.
These figures do not include special education students, who make up roughly 3 percent of the student body.
While enrollment numbers reflect trends, funding is actually based on the average daily attendance of students, or ADA, throughout each school year, Johnson said. The district doesn’t get paid for unexcused absences, which are traditionally more common in the upper grades.
As a funding safety net, the state’s ADA funding never drops below that of the previous year. However, Johnson said that if enrollment numbers remain flat or decline next year, the district stands to lose more than $300,000 in state monies, or $3,400 per student.
“We are going to watch our enrollment figures very carefully – I am concerned about the fiscal impact of flat or declining enrollment,” said Superintendent Rich Alexander. “State cost-of-living adjustments do not keep pace with increases in actual costs, especially if you are committed to the continual improvement of a district rather than just maintaining the status quo.”
In the past, enrollment growth has helped the district to finance teacher salary increases, which by contract go up each additional year a teacher stays in the district. In addition, growth has helped to fund many new programs, Alexander said.
“This new situation forces us to fund step and column (salary increases) through cost-of-living adjustments,” Alexander added. “It leaves us very little with which to make improvements for students.”
Similarly, the Douglas County School District has experienced flat enrollment this year, despite hundreds of new building permits during the 1996-97 fiscal year.
On the California side, Realtors report that while sales are up, the number of units now being rented are down. Realtor Mike Yagi suspects that California’s strong economy has enabled more people from large urban areas to purchase second homes in Tahoe.
“When we see a drop in enrollment it’s usually because the local economy can’t sustain the population,” Johnson surmised. “Gaming is down 15 percent, which means a lack of good, predictable jobs. The opening and closing of Highway 50 has also been a lingering problem – it’s a several-cause issue.”
In addition, the number of home-schooled children appears to be slowly increasing on both sides of the state line, said coordinator Katherine Behm. It is now estimated that roughly 800 students from Glenbrook to Meyers are taught in their homes.
While the current LTUSD enrollment has temporarily eased classroom crowding problems, the potential for budget revisions and reduced revenue tend to overshadow the benefits.
“We’re now in a position of wait-and-see – we don’t know if we’re in a downward trend or just flattening out,” Johnson said. “A downward trend would be tough. When you’re declining everything’s more difficult.”
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