Student enrollment in Harford County Public Schools has been on the decline for a decade, but that decline is finally showing signs of slowing.
There was just a nine-student drop from last year to the current school year, based on preliminary enrollment data for the 37,000-plus student system, which dropped from seventh to eighth largest in Maryland – falling behind Frederick County Public Schools – during the period.
A summary of the student population, as of Sept. 30, showed 37,442 students this year, compared to 37,451 students for the 2015-2016 school year, according to data presented to the county's Adequate Public Facilities Advisory Board late last week.
"I think this is by far the lowest reduction in numbers that we've had," the board chair, County Council President Richard Slutzky, who chairs the APF board, remarked during the panel's semiannual meeting Thursday. "At one point we were substantially more than that in the numbers of students we were losing on a yearly basis."
The advisory board includes HCPS officials and school board members, plus county government officials. The board meets twice a year in the spring an fall to review school enrollment figures and housing construction data.
Joseph Licata, chief of administration for the school system and the advisory board secretary, provided a summary of elementary, middle and high school enrollment for this year and last year, plus the state-rated capacity.
He noted the individual school enrollment numbers and projections through the next five years have not been published yet.
"There's a couple of tweaks that still have to be taken care of," he said.
Licata did share with board members preliminary, unpublished data about the individual schools and their capacity projections.
"In the three years that we project out, we have no schools that are over the adequate public facilities limit," Slutzky noted.
"That's right," Licata replied.
Many seats still empty
By law, the county can impose a moratorium on residential development in any school attendance area where enrollment is 110 percent of state-rated capacity or higher, or officials project enrollment will break that threshold in the next three years.
Enrollment has dropped nearly every year since 2006, according to data provided by Bradley Killian, the county's planning and zoning director. Killian compiled data from the planning department and school system to compare the number of residential building permits issued each year compared to school enrollment between 1997 and 2015.
Killian noted there has not been a correlation between residential permits and student enrollment levels.
The number of permits issued each year between 1997 and 2005 ranged from 1,565 to 2,113, while annual school enrollment increases ranged from 793 in 1997 to 220 in 2005 – enrollment decreased once in 2000 by 27 students.
Permit activity declined sharply as the national and local housing bubble burst, although 500 to 1,000 permits were issued each year between 2006 and 2015. More new homes were being built, but student enrollment continued to decline, according to the data.
The school system lost hundreds of students each year in 2006, 2007 and 2008. There was another major decline of 318 students in 2014, although the enrollment declined only by 61 the next year. Enrollment last increased, by 36, in 2012.
Building moratoriums have been issued in specific school districts, such as Hickory Elementary School, in prior years, but they have since been lifted. Slutzky noted no school jurisdiction is slated for the "moratorium category" based on current data.
Board members discussed closing under-used schools if the economy tanks during their meeting last fall, but that did not come up during their spring meeting or on Thursday. The idea of closing schools comes from declining enrollment that leaves schools with excess capacity.
The over-capacity issue has not gone away this year, as total student capacity has increased from last year by 165 students to 44,242, compared to 44,077 in the fall of 2015, according to the summaries. That leaves space for an additional 6,800 students, or about 18 percent empty seats systemwide.
Looked at another way, the Harford system has enough empty seats to equate to a full high school/middle/elementary attendance area.
Licata noted changes in how classrooms are used is one factor that affects capacity, such as shifting a space from a regular classroom, rated for 25 students, to a "self-contained" room for students with special needs. The self-contained room would be limited to 10 students.
Within the current student population of 37,442, the number of elementary schoolers has increased by 26, the number of high schoolers by 82, but the number of middle school students has decreased by 131, according to the summary.
Licata said school officials do not know why middle schoolers declined, although "we're looking at every possible" reason.
"There's no correlation to anything really," he said. "We're still trying to figure out why that particular number goes down."
Housing market improving
One indicator of an improving local housing market is increased county revenue from taxes and fees charged on new construction and real estate transactions.
Home builders pay impact fees on each new dwelling, and the county collects additional revenue through the transfer tax paid when a property is sold and the recordation tax paid when recording documents such as deeds in county land records.
"All three of these revenue sources bring in approximately $18 to $19 million a year," County Treasurer Robert Sandlass said.
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He said that amount has grown from about $14 million four years ago. The county budgeted for $18.3 million in such revenues in fiscal 2017, according to a document provided by Sandlass.
"Homes are selling more now than they were in the past," he said. "Values are increasing, but again, there's nowhere near the level of real estate activity you would have seen maybe 10 years ago."
Impact fees, along with half of the transfer tax revenue and two thirds of the recordation tax, go to debt service on bonds sold to finance school system capital projects. That debt service is more than $31 million in this year's budget.
"The difference is made up just through general funds," Sandlass said.
As of July, the county had issued building permits for 4,149 out of 10,955 planned housing units, including single-family homes, town houses and apartments/condos, according to data provided by Killian.
Planning officials estimate those units will yield 1,205 elementary school students, 639 middle school students and 556 high school students.
"Overall, our projections for out-years are pretty steady in terms of what our student growth potential looks like," Killian said.