Harford County Public Schools continue to spend more to educate fewer students, according to enrollment figures for the current academic year recently posted on the school system website.
Nearly 38,000 students were enrolled in the county's 55 public schools as of Sept. 30, when school officials recorded "the number of students that were physically in seats," according to Teri Kranefeld, manager of communications for the school system. While the budget is up to $424.7 million this year, that enrollment figure is 2,290 students fewer than 10 years ago.
School officials report that the system's buildings are operating at 86 percent of capacity as they counted 37,913 students, including 17,780 elementary pupils, 8,574 in middle school and 11,559 high school students.
In the past seven years, enrollment has declined by 1,262 students — about 3.2 percent — from 39,175 students on the same date in 2007.
Meanwhile, the school system's operating budget has increased by 4.4 percent during the same seven years for which budget data is available on the school system's website.
The operating budget approved in June 2013 for the 2013-2014 fiscal year stood at $424.7 million, about $19 million more than the $405.7 million operating budget for the 2007-2008 fiscal year.
Harford County residents and some top officials, including Harford County Executive David Craig, have criticized school officials for seeking more funds as enrollment declines.
School officials have countered the criticism, citing the need to cover increased costs of doing business such as employee pensions and health care, the rising costs of educating children with special needs, as well as increasing teacher pay to remain competitive with neighboring counties.
At least two new schools, Patterson Mill Middle/High School and Red Pump Elementary School, have opened since 2007.
Harford County Public Schools leaders have pushed the county and state to increase funding to cover related increased operating costs.
The decline in enrollment is even larger when viewed over the past decade. The total number of students has dropped overall by 2,290 about 5.6 percent from the 40,203 counted on Sept. 30, 2003, according to data posted on the school system website.
The enrollment total for the 2012-2013 academic year was 37,977 as of Jan. 2, 2013; there were 64 more students enrolled last year compared to this.
Joe Licata, director of administration for the school system, presented current enrollment figures, school capacity figures and projections for enrollment through 2020 to members of the county's Adequate Public Facilities Advisory Board Wednesday evening.
School officials are required to present enrollment data to the board each year. The county's Adequate Public Facilities law requires new home building to be restricted in school enrollment areas where enrollment is projected to reach or surpass 110 percent in three years.
Licata presented enrollment numbers as of Nov. 18, which showed a total of 37,842 students, 71 fewer than the total recorded Sept. 30.
Kranefeld said the November enrollment numbers will be sent to the state "for funding purposes."
"Although we have more students in seats than reflected in the official numbers that will be forwarded to the state, not all of those students are eligible for state funding hence resulting in a different enrollment number," she explained in an email Thursday.
Licata's enrollment numbers also showed each school's capacity.
The enrollment area around Hickory Elementary School, north of Bel Air, has been closed to new home construction after officials projected the school, which had 687 pupils in kindergarten through fifth grade for the current year, would reach 110 percent capacity by 2015.
The school's enrollment for 2012 was 681.
Hickory Elementary has a capacity of 655, so it is at 105 percent capacity for 2013; projections showed its capacity decreasing to percentages in the 90s through 2020.
Adequate Public Facilities board members said Wednesday the restrictions on Hickory could be lifted with the projected continued decrease in enrollment.
"Hickory has come out as far as we're projecting," the board's chairman, County Councilman Richard Slutzky, said.
School enrollment countywide is projected to remain flat, with slight fluctuations through the end of the decade. Enrollment is projected to remain at 85 percent of school capacity through 2020.
Slutzky and Pete Gutwald, director of planning and zoning for the county, noted Harford County's population and housing growth has slowed since the housing crash in 2007 and 2008.
Gutwald said the number of permits issued to build new housing each year has "hovered around" 500 to 600 during the past five years.
The county issued 1,500 to 2,000 new building permits each year during the housing boom of the 1980s and 1990s.
Gutwald said the county issued as many as 2,200 permits a year "when the market was really hot."
Board members noted housing trends are in the direction of building more housing for elderly residents and more apartment units for adults delaying having children.
"What I've noticed coming across my desk, so to speak, is there are a number of subdivisions that are apartment units coming online," Gutwald said.
Slutzky said "the largest share of the affordable housing is still going to be the rental units."
Rick Pernas, deputy county treasurer, noted the number of house deeds filed with the county has increased during the current fiscal year, and 61 percent of the deeds involve re-sales of existing homes, rather than sales of new homes.
Pernas said that means greater revenue from transfer and recordation taxes, a large portion of which goes to schools to pay off debt on construction bonds.
Slutzky said revenue from those taxes, and impact fees, support schools.
"At some point, if this economy takes a lead again and things start to boom, and then that impact fee really becomes one of the funding streams for capital construction," he said.