By Patrick McCallister
For Hometown News
It looks like the children are going to keep disappearing, and no one's certain how long this will last. At its last regular meeting on Dec. 11, the Volusia County School Board got news that student enrollment is continuing an already five-year trend of decline.
"The unknown, but it's reasonable to say, (is) we're not going to see increases in families in the near term," Saralee Morrissey, planning director, told the board. "Next year, we show 60,477 (students) as our projection."
That's about 650 fewer than this year. With fewer students, there's less state and federal revenue. Because the student reduction is uneven among grade levels and geography, the district can't reduce its fixed costs equal to the losses.
In the annual 20-day count, the district had 61,124 children and youths in its schools and programs. That's down more than 500 students from previous school year's 20-day count. After last year's 20-day count, the district thought that student declines, which started in August 2007, were stopping.
During the 2011 20-day count, Volusia had just more than 61,630 students among its 69 schools, about 50 fewer than in 2010. However, the district anticipated having about 500 fewer students than that last year. No one was pulling out champagne, but it was taken as good news.
"(Student decline) started in August 2007, and it appears it may have stabilized," Ms. Morrissey said in an interview at the time. "That's what this year's data is telling us. We had anticipated we would decline more this year. We had anticipated that the stabilization wouldn't happen for two more years. It looks like it may begin this year."
In the 2006-2007 school year, the county's public schools had nearly 65,800 students. That was the last year the school system saw an increase in enrollment, about 400 students more than in 05-06.
Projections at the time predicted there'd be more than 70,000 students by now, and in the early 2000s, the district went on an aggressive building campaign to accommodate the anticipated needed classroom space. Ms. Morrissey said in previous interviews that the Volusia Schools borrowed heavily to meet the then growing student population.
"Our debt service is at $51 million a year," she said. "That's the annual payment."
The district has about 18,850 high school students, and 14,200 middle schoolers. There are slightly more than 25,500 elementary students. The district's 10 charter schools, hybrid private schools that operate with funding from the district, have nearly 2,000 students. Those students are part of the 20-day count, as are those in alternative education programs, such as the Department of Juvenile Justice Educational Program. Also in the count are 125 students in the district's online schooling program, Volusia Virtual.
There's one grade that's made student gains this year: kindergarten. There are about 4,600 kindergarteners this school year. Last year there were about 4,450. However, Ms. Morrissey told the school board Volusia has had a declining birth rate in recent years. Young families with, or who are likely to have, children are moving out faster than moving in.