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Helminiak: School enrollment problems will linger for a while

Funding our school system has been part of our daily news for the last few months and it was the central issue in the last school board and commissioner elections that gave us the current boards that are wrestling with the problem.

Our school population peaked in 2005-2006 at 28,914 students and dropped to 25,879 this year. To right-size the capacity, the school board made the tough decision to close some schools. Unfortunately this will not be the last we hear of the problem.

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Every year the schools provide us with a 10-year future population projection in the Educational Facilities Master Plan. Based upon the current school population and the Carroll County children who are not yet in school, the future school population will be dropping for at least the next seven years, with a low of 23,504 in their projection for the 2022-2023 school year. That's a loss of 2,375 students from current population. Another way to look at it — that's a high school, a middle school and an elementary school or two.

The Facilities Master Plan (available on the www.carrollk12.orgwebsite) devotes several pages to explaining why we have a declining school population. The plans going back to 2011 are on the website and they all share a common theme — declining enrollment for the next seven years, then an increase in the last few years. In 2011, they predicted a rebound that would start in 2018-2019. It isn't happening. It's actually going the other way. The 2011 plan said we would bottom out at 26,294. In 2016's plan they predict a bottom of 23,504 — that's 5,410 less than our 2005-2006 peak. Our population was growing by 20-30 percent a decade from the 1970s until the 2000s. That rate of growth has slowed significantly in the last decade. Household sizes are shrinking, our county population is aging and the prolonged slowdown in the economy is continuing to keep a lid on our school age numbers — our future school enrollment is not going to turn around soon.

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The funding gap is growing every year. One commissioner suggests raising tax rates as a solution. But we can't tax ourselves out of the problem. Fewer students each year means less funding from the state, which means unless we continue to right-size our facilities and our overhead, the gap between school board requests and money we have to fund them is going to grow wider and wider each year. The county contributes close to $7,000 per student to the school budget. Combined state and federal contributions are about $6,500 per student. When we lose students, we lose the per-student funds from the state and federal sources. Even if we keep the overall school budget flat, the county has to make up for the missing funds themselves. But it's worse — our school budget is increasing while our school population is decreasing.

Increasing housing growth won't solve the problem either. Most new houses pay less in property taxes than the cost to educate even one student. Housing growth will make the funding gap wider. If a new house pays $5,000 in property taxes but costs the county $14,000 for the education of their two children, that new house results in a net funding loss to the county.

We need our school and county leaders to deal with reality. Raising property taxes won't fix this. The best way to increase tax revenue without further burdening our already overtaxed citizens is to increase our commercial and industrial tax base. Carroll County is blessed with an excellent economic development team, but growing this sector of the county takes time; new businesses take several years from when they show interest in Carroll County to when they start paying taxes. Reality is that school enrollment is going to continue to fall while school budget requests continue to increase. As a result, the burden on the Carroll County taxpayer grows higher each year. More hard decisions lie ahead.

Matt Helminiak is chairman of the Carroll County Planning and Zoning Commission, and chairman of the Carroll County Republican Central Committee. He writes from Eldersburg.

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