Wednesday, February 21 , 2018, 7:40 pm | Fair 52º


Student Enrollment Keeps Dropping

Student enrollment in the Santa Barbara K-12 school system has droppedfor the fourth consecutive year, falling below 16,000 pupils for thefirst time since 1999-2000, according to preliminary headcounts fromthe district office.

Student enrollment in the Santa Barbara K-12 school system has dropped for the fourth consecutive year, falling below 16,000 pupils for the first time since 1999-2000, according to preliminary headcounts from the district office.

The elementary district and the seventh-through-12th grade district each appear to have lost about 200 students this year, for a total of 400, bringing the estimated number of students in the K-12 system to 15,737, said Davis Hayden, the district’s director of research and technology.

Hayden said he believes that decline will bottom out soon, perhaps in a couple years.

“The entire city of Santa Barbara has had declining population, but it is supposed to have leveled out and is supposed to be climbing,” he said. “There’s still building going on.”

School officials also pointed out that the younger grades — grades K-3 — are posting slightly larger numbers.

But a local expert believes the decline will be more severe, saying the high cost of housing seems to be putting the permanent squeeze on families with kids. 

Lanny Ebenstein, an economist and former school board member who has worked with the school district as a demographer, believes the current trend will continue for at least four more years.

“There’s increased migration of families from Santa Barbara as a result of the high cost of housing, since so many retired people are moving here from all over the world," he said. “It seems to me high property values are here to stay in Santa Barbara.”

Ebenstein, who stopped projecting enrollment for the district in an official capacity a couple years ago, said he had actually expected a slightly smaller drop this year. But he expects to see some sizable losses in the years to come. He believes the elementary district will lose up to 800 students over the next four years, and the secondary district will lose up to 1,500 students over the next five.

According to those projections, by 2012-13 Santa Barbara’s K-12 school system will enroll about 13,400 students.

The student exodus translates into financial loss for the public school system. Like most school districts, Santa Barbara receives roughly $5,500 a year per student from the state. So losing 400 students means losing about $2.2 million. The K-12 system works with a budget of about $100 million.

However, in areas that generate big bucks in property taxes, like Santa Barbara, at a certain point the loss of students becomes financially beneficial. The phenomenon is known as Basic Aid, and it affects about 5 percent of the school districts statewide.

Hayden said he does not know how low the enrollment must fall to trigger Basic Aid.

“It will not happen in the next several years,” he said. “It probably will happen in the next 10.”

Hayden qualified the enrollment numbers by saying they come with a margin of error of about 10 percent, and that a more precise figure will be ready this winter.

Because the Santa Barbara elementary district fits neatly into the city limits, its enrollment numbers seem to provide a demographic snapshot of the city. In short, Santa Barbara seems to be home to fewer children than a few years ago. Since 2002-03, enrollment in public elementary schools has sunk from about 6,100 to about 5,500. (Hayden said enrollment in local private schools has not increased.)

The Santa Barbara secondary district is much larger because it serves junior high and high school students from Goleta to Montecito. Both districts are managed by the same elected five-member school board.

The drop in the secondary district over that time has been less severe, from 10,400 to approximately 10,200.

The districts’ contrasting enrollment trends have much to do with local birth rates. Officials say a local baby boom seems to be working its way through the high school district, meaning that the enrollment decline that has long dogged the elementary district will affect the secondary district for some time to come.

Meanwhile, the current total number of students is by no means a record low. In 1993-94, the K-12 population was at 13,500. Over the years the number gradually rose, until it hit a peak in 2003-04, at 16,600.

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