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Fewer students enrolled in L.A. Unified

Classrooms shrink by the thousands for the fifth straight year as parents opt for charter campuses or to move to more affordable areas.

October 19, 2007|Joel Rubin and Seema Mehta | Times Staff Writers

The number of students enrolled in Los Angeles public schools has dropped again for the fifth consecutive year in a trend that has affected school districts throughout Southern California, education officials reported Thursday.

Driven largely by lower birthrates and a real estate market that has priced out many families, the decline in enrollment translates to heavy cuts in funding for public schools, officials say.

Compared with last year, 20,285 fewer students are now filling Los Angeles Unified School District classrooms. With the total number of students pegged at 653,215, L.A. Unified remains second only to New York City in national enrollment, yet it stands far below where it was only a few years ago when its student body topped 700,000.

The loss for L.A. Unified, once again, meant a gain for the explosive charter school movement; thousands of students continue to leave traditional district schools each year in favor of the independently run charter campuses. Twenty-three charter schools opened within the district's boundaries this year, a dramatic increase that helped boost charter school enrollment by 17%, to a total of nearly 41,000 students.

Unlike previous years, L.A. Unified officials accurately planned for this year's tally. In 2005, they were caught off-guard when 20,000 children left the district.

"There are no surprises here," said Roger Rasmussen, the district's budget director.

In California, enrollment and attendance figures are the primary factors involved in determining school funding for the following school year. This year's decline will mean a roughly $100-million loss for L.A. Unified in 2008, Rasmussen said.

L.A. Unified is hardly alone in feeling the pinch, however, as school officials throughout Southern California anticipate that enrollment will continue to fall for the next several years.

For example, the Long Beach Unified School District lost nearly 2,000 students compared with last year, and the overall student count has dropped nearly 10% over the last four years.

In Pasadena, 700 fewer students showed up for classes this year. "There are just fewer students out there, but we also have seen an astronomically huge increase in the cost of homes," said Jacqueline Cochran, assistant superintendent of the Pasadena Unified School District.

Nearly four-fifths of the 27 school districts in Orange County had declining enrollment last year, and the majority are expected to see it again this year, said Wendy Benkert, an assistant superintendent for the county Department of Education. "It affects them quite a bit," she said. "Districts have certain fixed costs that don't go away. Janitors, lights, principals, school site secretaries [must be paid] regardless of your enrollment."

Santa Ana Unified, which has lost 6,000 students over the last four years, has been hit hard. Trustees there have cut $79 million in spending since 2004, including eliminating teaching positions and closing two schools, and are expected to cut an additional $19 million next year.

Like other districts, Santa Ana is trying to squeeze as much funding out of the students it has as possible, using incentive programs such as a car giveaway to bolster attendance.

Trustee Audrey Yamagata-Noji said after years of consecutive budget cuts, each round is getting more painful.

"Something's got to give," she said. "You only have a few more things and they're called layoffs and cutting programs. Everybody thinks everything is essential. It's hard."

The San Diego Unified School District bucked the downward trend, posting a 1,200-student gain over last year. Supt. Carl Cohn attributed the rise to a deliberate campaign to woo families back to the district.

"Instead of saying to parents, 'This is it; take it or leave it,' we designed innovative programs from the bottom up," he said.

School systems in the Inland Empire and high desert are struggling with a different set of challenges, as many of the families leaving pricey communities to the west move inland in search of more affordable housing.

The small Victor Valley Union High School District, for example, saw its enrollment climb by 300 students this year and in the last three years has experienced a 19% jump. With almost 4,000 students in one of the district's three high schools, officials are drawing up plans to build another campus.

In the meantime, the district has had to go on teacher hiring sprees and place classrooms in portable trailers. "We are bursting at the seams," Supt. Julian Weaver said.

Los Angeles Unified knows the feeling. Because no new schools were built during several decades of dramatic growth that preceded the recent downward run, the district has suffered from severe crowding and has been forced to bus thousands of students to remote campuses.

Last year, in light of the continued decline in enrollment, district officials downsized slightly the ambitious, $20-billion school construction and modernization project it is now undertaking.

But this year's numbers will have no further effect, said Ed Van Ginkel, a senior construction manager.

"We're building to fix 20 years of unmet need," he said.

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