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Harford schools reverse recent trend, add students

Harford County Public Schools has experienced its first significant student enrollment in more than 15 years, with more than 350 additional students entering at the start of the current school year.
Harford County Public Schools has experienced its first significant student enrollment in more than 15 years, with more than 350 additional students entering at the start of the current school year. (Courtesy photo/Harford County Public Schools)

Harford County Public Schools, reversing seven straight years of enrollment declines, has 354 more students this school year than it had a year ago.

That’s the largest increase in more than 15 years. The next biggest enrollment increase was reported in the 2001-02 school year, the first year for which enrollment figures are available on the school system’s website, when there were 269 more students.

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Since then, the only other increases reported were 91 more in the 2003-04 school year and 29 more in 2008-09.

The school system reports having 37,796 students enrolled as of Sept. 30 compared to 37,442 students at the same time last year, according to information made available Wednesday night at a semi-annual meeting of the Adequate Public Facilities Advisory Board.

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“That’s a pretty unusual sight,” Harford County Council President Richard Slutzky, chairman of APF Advisory Board, said when he first looked at the enrollment numbers.

“First time we’ve been up in quite a while,”Joe Licata, deputy superintendent of Harford County Public Schools, said.

The APF advisory board, comprised of county government and school system officials, meets twice a year – once in the spring and once in the fall - to review enrollment figures. That information is used to see how school capacity compares to residential construction to try and avoid overcrowding.

Even with the increased enrollment, only Emmorton Elementary School’s enrollment – at 111 percent of the school’s rated capacity – exceeds the 110 percent ceiling that can trigger action, including a moratorium imposed on new residential construction in that school’s district.

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No moratoriums are anticipated, nor should any be needed with the school system operating at 86 percent of its rated capacity of 43,954 students, not counting John Archer or Alternative Education. There are 6,349 empty seats.

The number of empty seats equates, theoretically, to a number of empty schools.

There are 2,494 empty seats in high schools, for example, and 1,555 students at Bel Air, the county’s largest, and 630 at Havre de Grace, the smallest. There are 1,925 empty seats at the middle school level and Bel Air is the largest at 1,366 and Havre de Grace is the smallest at 557. There are 1,930 empty seats at the elementary school level and Youth’s Benefit is the largest at 999 students and Darlington at 103 is the smallest.

“There are people out there in the communities saying ‘should we be doing this?’” Slutzky said at Wednesday night’s meeting about building new schools, or even keeping all schools operating.

Havre de Grace is next in line for a new school with construction of a combined middle school/high school about to begin.

Slutzky, acknowledging the community angst when a similar question about keeping all the schools open was asked at a previous APF meeting in 2015, said he wasn’t going to mention any schools by name. Among high schools, for example, Joppatowne is operating at the lowest percentage of capacity at 64 percent and Fallston is operating at 65 percent.

In terms of closing schools, there not always a great cost savings, according to Licata.

“It’s not what you think,” he said. “The math doesn’t work out the way people think it does.”

Licata said closing a school saves building operations costs but not much more because the students move to another school as do those who teach them.

Enrollment increased this year over last year in the three key categories. Enrollment in elementary schools increased by 109 from 17,484 to 17,593. Enrollment in middle schools increased by 161 from 8,492 in the 2016-17 school year to 8,653 on Sept. 30. Enrollment in high schools increased by 88 students from 11,271 a year ago to 11,359 this year.

In the fourth category, combined enrollment from John Archer and Alternative Education declined by four from 195 to 191 this year.

“This is a significant variation from what I thought we might have seen,” Bradley Killian, Harford County’s planning director, said about the increased enrollment.

“We see the big resurgence in apartment complexes,” Slutzky said. “Are we getting more kids living in apartments?”

Killian said yes.

“We did a yield study last year and we are getting more,” he said.

Last year, enrollment declined by nine students compared to the year before. In the last seven years, Harford County Public Schools enrollment declined by 1,197 students.

Before that, the school system added 29 students in the 2008-09 school year compared to the previous year. That ended a four-year streak of enrollment declines, totaling a loss of 1,684 students.

There were 40,264 students in the 2002-03 school year and that has been mostly and steadily declining until reaching last year’s enrollment of 37,442.

The school system has just started analyzing the data, Licata said.

“We’ll be looking at it,” Licata said. “There’s no rhyme nor reason to what we’ve seen.”

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