About 10,000 fewer students than expected enrolled in metro Atlanta's school systems this year, and officials wonder whether it's because the nation's troubled housing market has slowed the area's rapid growth.
That's a big number. 10,000. School officials seem perplexed by their sudden inability to predict enrollment numbers.
Last year, Gwinnett, with more than 150,000 students, was off by only 18 students from its forecast. But, after Labor Day this year, it was 3,500 students short of its projection. Gwinnett administrators have scrambled more than normal to shuffle teachers and classroom paraprofessionals to other positions within the system.
In several other counties, planners said their enrollment forecasts are usually off by less than 1 percent. But so far this year, at least five systems have fallen short by 2 percent or more. And, in some individual schools, the figures were off far more.
Now you might think this could ultimately be a good thing for both students and teachers. Fewer students could translate into more opportunities to get individualized assistance from the teacher. But, gasp! There's a dark side to this trend:
The less-than-expected enrollment gains mean many classrooms could have a lower student-teacher ratio than planned. But schools also could qualify for millions of dollars less than they budgeted in state funding, which is tied to student numbers. (emphasis added)
But school systems may have to deal with a budgetary fallout. Henry County schools may get $2 million to $3 million less from the state because of lower-than-expected enrollment, said Jeff Allie, the system's assistant superintendent for finance. To make up for it, the system will avoid filling some maintenance and central office positions and dip deeper than planned into funding reserves, he said. (emphasis added)
Seems as if fewer students would reduce the work levels in some maintenance and office positions. Fewer students means less trash to be cleaned up and less routine paperwork, so why not cut some of those positions? And "funding reserves?" Um, do you mean there are piles of taxpayers' dollars just sitting out there doing nothing? Sign me up for a refund, please!
Why is this happening? Most everyone seems to agree that it has to do with housing:
School planners are culling their data and waiting for more to come in, trying to figure out why their forecasts went wrong. Gwinnett Superintendent J. Alvin Wilbanks cites the area's troubled housing market. But he also said he wonders whether the social and political debate over illegal immigration scared off some families.
But planners in most area school systems say they suspect housing is a more likely and bigger factor in the enrollment issue.
I'd like to propose that housing is a factor, only in a different way than "school planners" are thinking. My fervent hope is that more and more houses in metro Atlanta are now being used as schools, that more families than expected have refused to turn their kids over to the government school system.
Oh, if only it were true! What a statement that would make! Of course, there is a confluence of factors contributing to this year's enrollment numbers. Here's hoping it's a trend and not a fluke!