Friday, April 11, 2008

Population growth does not always generate more students.

Everett Public Schools is building its case for an "investment" in land for future schools. The district's foregone conclusion is that it needs three new elementary schools and additional classrooms for middle- and high-school students by 2028. But, is that premise valid?

As a district taxpayer and one of many property owners targeted for land acquisition, I seriously question it. The school district's singular and thinly researched justification relies on Washington Office of Financial Management (OFM) data purportedly stating district population will grow between 15 and 20 percent within 20 years. That is guesswork. OFM does not make population forecasts at the school-district level. Its most detailed forecasts are on a county-by-county basis.

Shouldn't the analytical bar be set much higher before serious consideration is given to acquiring land by an agency able to wield the power of eminent domain?

While OFM doesn't make school district forecasts, it does assess district population growth retrospectively.

The Everett school district's population increased a reported 10 percent between 2000 and 2007; that, notably, is in common with other more-urban school districts in Snohomish County.

Population growth in outlying Snohomish County school districts, by contrast, was much higher — ranging from about 15 percent to over 25 percent. Judging from the greater growth capacity in outlying areas and the absence of additional OFM forecasting tools, one can only conclude that future countywide population growth within 20 years will be similarly skewed toward outlying areas.

The outlying areas, with lower-cost housing, are magnets for growing families. Outlying school districts are more apt to swell than Everett's.

What impact has a 10-percent population growth had on Everett Public Schools' enrollment?

The district's own data indicate that between the 2000-2001 and 2006-2007 school years, there was a minor change in total enrollment of 155 students out of more than 18,500 students.

Put in perspective, this is an increase of about 0.2 students per classroom. That is hardly a ringing endorsement for the need for new schools. Moreover, population growth almost exactly offset the trend toward fewer school age children.

Can we anticipate a turnaround? And, what can we learn from our neighbors?

The adjacent Northshore School District is nearly identical to Everett's in past population growth and future growth potential. The Northshore superintendent has reported a trend of declining school enrollment. Northshore projects the loss of 626 students in the next three years, a number equal to the student population of an entire elementary school. The district reports this is not a result of student flight to private schools but of changing demographics. Despite population growth, there are simply fewer school-age children living in the area. Rather than expanding the number of schools, Northshore is considering which schools to close.

As individuals expected to sacrifice our properties and community — with all of the hard work, memories and satisfaction they represent — for the school district's benefit, it should not be too much to ask for it to be much more analytical and far less cavalier in defining real needs and how best to address them.

Perhaps a more justified use of public funds is to accurately scale the district's needs and make expansion plans for existing neighborhood schools, where the infrastructure to support them is already in place.

But, could another agenda be at work? The district's land interest is limited to properties next to the existing urban-growth-area boundary. Without a solid justification for new schools, the district's investment zeal looks more like land speculation pending movement of the boundary, and using eminent domain for muscle.

The district has considerable explaining to do. While doing so, it should consider this Will Rogers quote:

"We will never have true civilization until we have learned to recognize the rights of others."

Dr. Eric Holmes is a biochemist who has lived in South Snohomish County for over 25 years. He and his wife own one of the properties being eyed for acquisition by Everett Public Schools.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The OFM forecasts were also significantly incorrect for the Edmonds School District. As previously mentioned in this blog, the Capital Facilities Plan contains enrollment projections. The chart shows OFM enrollment projections increasing while the district (or should I say the previous budget analyst) projected enrollment declines. It's anybody's guess on how OFM came up with their numbers, but they are grossly wrong.