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.
Hickory Elementary, Licata continued, may be over capacity because of new subdivisions in the development envelope around Bel Air, but that doesn't correlate with the limited building permits being issued, he said. County records, however, show two major housing subdivisions were approved in the Hickory attendance area in the past 30 months.
Board member James Thornton asked what the school system's plan is to deal with the underuse of high schools.
Redistricting might be a possible strategy, Licata said, but one has to look at the surrounding schools first and how much housing might be built in the future.
For example, he said, if Bel Air High School continues to increase in enrollment, the school system would look at C. Milton Wright and Fallston high schools and see if those facilities could handle some BAHS students.
Enrollment exceeds capacity at only two secondary schools, Harford Technical High School, a magnet school which enrolls students from all over the county, and Patterson Mill High in Bel Air. Harford Tech had 1,010 students on Sept. 30, 2012, 90 more than its capacity of 920. Patterson Mill had 941 students, 17 more than its capacity of 924.
Enrollment was less than capacity at the other nine high schools and at all nine middle schools. Projections through 2019 show Harford Tech's enrollment remaining at about the same level, between 108 and 110 percent of the school's capacity, and Patterson Mill's enrollment remaining in the 101 to 102 percent range.
Among the 33 elementary schools, enrollment at six is either at or greater than capacity, but none are above 105 percent. Only one, Hickory Elementary north of Bel Air, is projected to exceed 110 percent by 2015, the level that could trigger a home building moratorium in the school's attendance area, under the county's Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance. Only Hickory, at 104 percent, and Churchville Elementary, at 102 percent, are projected to be above 110 percent in 2019, both at 113 percent.
More significantly, perhaps, there are a number of schools in the county where enrollment is below 80 percent of their capacity.
Five elementary schools have enrollment below 80 percent of capacity: Norrisville, 74 percent; Havre de Grace, 74 percent; North Bend, 76 percent; Roye-Williams, 69 percent; and Darlington, 60 percent.
Nine secondary schools, half the 18 in the system, where enrollment is less than 80 percent of capacity are Fallston High, 70 percent; Edgewood High, 71 percent; Joppatowne High, 75 percent; Havre de Grace High, 79 percent; Magnolia Middle, 64 percent; Havre de Grace Middle, 69 percent; Aberdeen Middle, 72 percent; Edgewood Middle, 76 percent; and North Harford Middle, 78 percent.
Some other highlights of the report include:
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Youth's Benefit Elementary School has the largest enrollment of any elementary school, 958, with William Paca/Old Post Road close behind at 954. Both schools have aging facilities that are in need of replacement, school officials have agreed.
Darlington Elementary has the fewest students, at 192. The next lowest is Norrisville Elementary with 252 students.
• Darlington's 60 percent enrollment to capacity is a red flag, because the state requires local systems to look closely at schools where enrollment falls under than level, the Harford School official in charge of facilities and their use told school board members.
Elementary schools at or above 100 percent capacity are Abingdon, Churchville, Dublin, Hickory, Ring Factory and Youth's Benefit.
Southampton Middle School in Bel Air has the largest enrollment of any middle school, 1,540 students.
Patterson Mill is at 98 percent capacity, the highest out of all the middle schools, and Magnolia Middle has the lowest use, at 64 percent capacity.
Edgewood High School has the most students enrolled, 1,743, but is at just 71 percent of capacity. Edgewood's current building, a replacement for the original built in the early 1950s, opened in 2010.