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Fewer Pupils Create More Worries

Schools throughout the state are searching for ways to cope with declining enrollment, saving campus closures as a last resort.

July 31, 2006|Catherine Saillant | Times Staff Writer

Over the last seven years, nearly 400 students have left the public school rosters in Santa Barbara. Enrollment in this wealthy, Spanish-tiled coastal haven has dropped as steadily as home prices have risen.

It is a trend expected to continue as the median home price pushes past $1 million.

It is also a trend that increasingly appears to be occurring across California.

Public schools circling downtown Los Angeles are losing students as their neighborhoods gentrify. A similar shift is underway in the Bay Area, Sacramento and Los Angeles, and Orange and Ventura counties.

Statewide, public school enrollment was down slightly this year, for the first time in nearly a quarter of a century. And though officials aren't quite sure of all the reasons behind the drop, they are sure that the cost of housing is one of them.

In Santa Barbara, school administrators worry about lost revenue, because funding is tied to enrollment.

Already, administrators said, the decline has cost the district millions annually. Now, having made small, less-painful cuts, they are considering larger steps, such as selling off vacant property or building housing to sell to teachers at below-market value.

Building the houses, they say, would help recruit teachers, who otherwise might not be able to afford the area, and the school system would bring in some revenue from the sales.

Another option is to start closing schools, a move that is always unpopular, said Jan Zettel, the Santa Barbara School Districts' assistant superintendent of secondary education.

"We don't think we will have to close a school in the next year," he said, "but beyond that, yes, it's entirely possible."

In the 2005-06 school year, statewide school enrollment dropped for the first time in 24 years. There were 6,313,103 pupils enrolled, a decline of about 10,000 from the previous year, according to state Department of Education records.

State officials aren't sure whether the trend will continue. Projections had called for continued student growth through at least 2010, said Donna Rothenbaum, a spokeswoman in the education department's demographics unit. She said several factors could contribute, including local job losses, changes in migration patterns and lower fertility rates. But a major trigger, analysts say, is the state's sky-high housing market.

Student losses appear to be highest in high-cost coastal regions, especially around Los Angeles and the Bay Area. Housing prices in those regions are among the highest in the state, analysts note.

At ABC Unified, based in Cerritos, enrollment has dropped by 1,000 students over the last five years, officials said.

In Orange County, Fountain Valley schools are losing 60 to 100 students a year. Similar declines have been recorded in Ojai and Oak Park school districts in Ventura County.

In Sacramento, San Juan Unified School District is closing schools because of decreased enrollment, Rothenbaum said.

"It wasn't that long ago that we couldn't build schools fast enough," said Hans Johnson, a demographer at the San Francisco-based Public Policy Institute of California. "Now we've switched to which schools to close."

Santa Barbara's housing market is so out of reach for young families, Johnson said, that when couples there decide to buy a home, they move inland. The pattern is common throughout California, he said.

"There are still areas of enrollment growth, but they are in places like San Bernardino and Riverside, and in the cities east of the Bay Area," Johnson said.

Housing in Santa Barbara was already more expensive than other areas when the boom in home prices began five years ago. In June, the median price passed $1 million.

That has squeezed out teachers, police officers, firefighters and other middle-wage earners, creating a two-tiered economy, said William Fulton, president of Solimar Research Group, a Ventura-based planning and development research firm.

"You have rich people who don't have kids and poor people living two or three families to a house," Fulton said.

In Santa Barbara Unified's 13 elementary schools, 70% of students are Latino and 25% are white. Citywide, population estimates are nearly reversed: 58% of residents are white and 35% are Latino.

Most of the remaining students are from immigrant families and struggle just to read and write in English, Zettel said.

The evidence of white flight out of the city's schools has made the challenge more difficult, educators said. Once begun, white flight can be a difficult cycle to break, Zettel said. La Cumbre Junior High School has lost hundred of students in recent years, he said.

"We started to see people looking around, getting worried," he said. "And if you're wealthy, you have a lot of education options."

The school board will study several ways to use two vacant parcels next month. But already there is opposition from neighborhood groups that fear construction of hundreds of units beyond what current zoning densities allow.

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