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L.A. Unified Enrollment Down Again

The drop in the number of students, partly attributed to the lure of charter schools, could mean $100 million less in state funds next year.

October 12, 2005|Joel Rubin | Times Staff Writer

For the third consecutive year, enrollment in Los Angeles schools declined by thousands of students at a rate that far outpaced district projections and will result in a roughly $100-million drop in state funding next year, officials said Tuesday.

This year, 697,980 students are attending the district's 688 regular campuses -- a decline of 20,258 students from last year. The Los Angeles Unified School District, the nation's second largest, had predicted that it would lose about 9,000 students this year.

District officials and education experts attributed much of the loss to increasing property values that have pushed families out of Los Angeles County, as well as the rising popularity of largely independent charter schools that posted sharp gains in enrollment.

Based on the faulty projections, school principals were permitted to hire 109 teachers who have since been removed from their schools and been reassigned as substitutes until permanent assignments open, officials said.

Much of the decline came at the elementary grades, where nearly 17,500 fewer students enrolled as compared to last year. The number of high school students increased slightly as children who were part of a spike in the birthrate in the late 1980s and early 1990s approached graduation.

School funding in California is based on average student attendance and campuses receive about $5,000 for each student. The enrollment drop means Los Angeles Unified will receive about $100 million less in state funding.

The district's general fund budget this year is $7.1 billion.

The loss of funds will not have an immediate impact on the district's budget this year, since school districts with declining enrollment are funded based on the previous year's enrollment. Next year, however, budget director Roger Rasmussen said the loss of funding will probably affect the district's ability to pay for such things as principal and custodial staff salaries and utility costs.

"There are some long-range implications," he said. "This will certainly put some financial strain on us."

Officials were quick to point out that they do not believe the decline in enrollment will significantly alter the district's massive, ongoing school construction project. Facilities executive Guy Mehula said his staff would reassess construction plans for future schools in light of the lower numbers, but that he did not anticipate any major changes because of the existing need to relieve severe crowding.

Earlier concerns that the continued decline would drastically decrease the district's eligibility for school construction funds from the state were alleviated this week. On Sunday, Mehula said, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed legislation that changed eligibility laws to permit Los Angeles Unified to receive state funds despite the slumping enrollment.

This week, principals across the district have been shuffling classes and teachers as a result of the lower-than-expected enrollments. One of those, Michael Bennett, principal of the 1,385-student Patrick Henry Middle School in Granada Hills, had to release three teachers and reorganize his remaining classes after 130 fewer students showed up.

"It's the hardest thing a principal has to do -- let somebody go that you've hired," Bennett said.

Last year, district projections resulted in the over-hiring of about 200 teachers.

Bennett said he believes about 25 of the students left Patrick Henry for schools outside of Los Angeles Unified. That flight reflects district officials' claims that rapidly rising property values in the county are forcing families to move in search of more affordable housing elsewhere.

The rising number of students attending charter schools did not prevent an overall decline in district enrollment. This year 29,174 students are enrolled at 76 charter schools within Los Angeles Unified. The total marks a jump of 5,322 students from last year, when there were 58 charter schools -- publicly funded but independently operated campuses.

Included in the district's enrollment totals are about 6,300 students at 10 "affiliated" charter schools that are less autonomous than typical charter campuses. The number of students at these schools did not increase this year.

Caprice Young, president of the California Charter Schools Assn., an advocacy group, disputed the district's figures, contending that about 2,600 more students are enrolled at charter schools.

She interpreted charter schools' strong growth, especially in Los Angeles and other urban areas, as a sign that "the large inner-city schools really are not making it and need a lot of help."

In a report released Tuesday, the group announced that 84 new charter schools opened statewide this year and that more than 32,000 new students enrolled, bringing the total to more than 200,000.

Charter schools have grown steadily since California first authorized them in 1992, said Priscilla Wohlstetter, a USC education professor and expert on school reform. Wohlstetter said she sees a link between Los Angeles Unified's declining enrollment and the increasing charter numbers.

"This tells me the [charter school] movement is finally taking hold," Wohlstetter said. "Charters have been around long enough now that people know what they are, that they are public schools, that they don't charge tuition," Wohlstetter said.

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Times staff writer Jean Merl contributed to this report.

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