Total enrollment in Harford County Public Schools declined once again at the start of this school year, and school officials are beginning wonder about a "what if" scenario regarding under-used school buildings.

This school year, total enrollment is more than 350 students fewer than last year, based on numbers released by the school system at the end of 2012 and, based on future projections, only two of the county's 54 schools appear to be in any danger of becoming seriously overcrowded.

Based on data from the end of September this year, total enrollment in Harford County's 54 public schools is 37,868 — 354 students fewer than September 2011, when 38,222 were enrolled. The latest annual decline was just under 1 percent.

Enrollment in the Harford school system peaked at 40,294 in 2004, according to the Maryland State Department of Education's website, and enrollment has declined every year but one since then. The system gained 26 students in 2009 but then lost 242 the next year. Total enrollment hasn't been below 38,000 students since the 1996-97 school year when 37,709 were enrolled, according to state figures.

The September figures show enrollment in Harford County's elementary schools is 17,561, 43 more students more than last year, middle school enrollment is 8,359 students, 248 fewer students than last year, and high school enrollment is 11,737, 119 fewer students that September 2011.

Enrollment numbers show 125 students at John Archer School, three fewer students than last year, and 86 students enrolled at the alternative eduction center, 30 fewer students than in 2011.

Taking into account the state-rated capacity of all its school buildings, Harford's school system has room for almost 6,300 more students than what it is serving.

Decline mirrors building slowdown

When current and projected enrollment numbers were presented to the Board of Education in mid-December, the report incited questions from board members about redistricting and how to better use schools that are below capacity.

Joe Licata, the school system's chief of administration who presented the numbers to the board, said a reason for the decline in enrollment is directly related to home sales in the county and building permits for new homes are at "a historic low" in Harford.

While school-aged students are moving through the system, new families with younger children aren't moving into the area, he said.

Between 2016 and 2018, however, that trend should "flatten out," Licata said, and then begin to increase because of the anticipated increase of home sales and residential construction.

Projected enrollment for HCPS elementary schools is expected to steadily decline through 2015 and then slowly increase. Middle school enrollment numbers are projected to decrease through 2016 and then begin to slowly increase, while the high schools are also projected to decrease through 2016 and then slowly rise again.

Board member Bob Frisch noted that the dip in enrollment may continue if the economy continues to lag, which would exacerbate the excess capacity at several high schools.

"It's something to consider when considering school construction," Frisch said. "The influx of students in elementary [schools] won't make up the loss of students in secondary schools."

Eight schools over 100 percent

Addressing the schools where enrollment exceeds 100 percent of capacity, Frisch noted the school system tried to "accommodate the desires of communities with redistricting [in 2011]," even though that meant enrollment at two schools remained over 100 percent capacity.

Now, he said, eight schools are "well beyond that 100 percent." Frisch asked why that happened.

The goal was to keep elementary schools around the 90 percent capacity mark, Licata said, but it's hard to predict on an individual school basis or pinpoint why there was an increase at a specific school.

The increase in Abingdon and decrease at William Paca/Old Post Road, he said, was a result of school choice option, because the latter school had not been meeting federal and state performance standards.