Even as enrollment in Harford County Public Schools is projected to decrease again in the coming academic year, the school system is seeking an increase of $15.1 million, which would bring spending to $442.8 million in the spending year that begins July 1, 2013.
Meanwhile, enrollment dropped from November 2011 to November of this year by 356 students to a total of 37,868. Incremental declines in enrollment have been the rule for the past several years, even as spending has continued to increase.
A substantial portion of the extra money is being requested to fund pay increases for school system employees, which is an added cost to the school system. Furthermore, certain costs remain the same or increase regardless of how many students are enrolled. A big one in this category is the cost of heating and cooling the schools. The same amount of energy is needed to heat the system's 50-plus buildings whether there are 38,000 students attending or 42,000 students. And the cost of that energy has been increasing for years.
Still, Harford County's overall population has been relatively stable for about a decade, even as public school enrollment has declined. There had been predictions that the upward changes in staffing levels at Aberdeen Proving Ground would drive a new population boom for the county and result in a need for more desks in the school system, but to date the predicted new residents and students have not arrived. And, at this point, it doesn't appear increased staffing at APG will result in a particularly large shift in population or enrollment.
Given this situation, the school system needs to begin planning for a future of flat growth in enrollment, and seriously considering the possibility that declining enrollment could be the shape of things to come. If the county population holds steady at roughly a quarter of a million, even as the average age of the population increases – increasing average age has been a national trend and is expected to continue as such – some school system consolidation will be in order.
Failing to recognize this, and, more importantly, do something about it, could leave Harford County facing the Baltimore City problem. The city was poised in the 1970s to surpass the 1 million mark in population, but it never quite got there. Population has decreased substantially from that era, but the school system in the city has not kept pace. To some degree, the city school system has the overhead to educate the youth of a big city, but is actually serving a population the size of a moderately large county.
It could be many years before Harford County has to consider consolidation of buildings to accommodate a decreasing student-age population, but that possibility is certainly real. And it isn't necessarily a bad thing. As a public resource, an elementary school building converted for use as a recreation center or related community space is something with a lot of value.
The issue of declining enrollment and increasing cost is one the school system and those who control its funding need to take much more seriously than they have been.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun