Based on state enrollment projections, Stanislaus County school districts likely face at least two more years of tight budgets before their classes start to fill to pre-recession levels and replenish education funding.
Estimates this month from the state Department of Finance show two more years of declining enrollment and then an uptick through the year 2018. Over the next 10 years, 12th-grade enrollment decreases as does the number of graduates.
That's bad news in the short term for Stanislaus County school districts struggling with steep budget cuts. The Modesto City Schools Board of Education, for example, expects to cut at least $15 million out of its $250 million annual budget next year.
Districts get most of their funding based on enrollment, so when it dips, revenue follows, jeopardizing programs and services kids take for granted.
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The estimates show Stanislaus County public school enrollment falling from last year's 105,052 to 104,261 in 2010-11. The state expects enrollment to start creeping upward after that, reaching 116,657 students in 2018-19.
The growth reflects a 1 percent to 2 percent increase each year in enrollment. It would take six years — until 2014-15 — to reach the enrollment the county had before the recession hit, according to the projections.
But before that recovery of enrollment, districts will be making deep spending cuts for the 2010-11 school year.
"It's going to be difficult until we pull our way out of the economic recession," Stanislaus County Superintendent Tom Changnon said. "Districts are doing whatever they can to retain students, like developing charter schools."
Modesto City Schools officials monitor such projections and the county's birth rates, but looking too much into the future is difficult, said Dennis Snelling, director of business services.
High school graduation projections show that dropouts likely will remain a challenge.
In the 2018-19 school year, Stanislaus County would have 7,135 12th-graders by the state estimates, but only 5,850 of them are projected to graduate. That means nearly a fifth of the seniors won't get their diplomas. The state anticipates a similar dropout rate for the rest of California.
High school graduation numbers peak and then decline over the next 10 years, partially because high school enrollment is expected to decrease, according to the Department of Finance projections.
Some dropouts represent students moving outside a district in their senior year and graduating elsewhere. The numbers also don't account for students who quit school before their senior year.
When all four high school years are factored in, the dropout rate grows to about 26 percent for Stanislaus County and California.
County educators are trying to address the crisis by holding dropout summits to pinpoint why students leave school and how students, parents and educators can stem that tide. Local surveys show students want and need more relevancy in their education and more personal connections with teachers.
"The last couple of years, we've been connecting them up with programs, for students who don't fit as well in the comprehensive high school mold," Snelling said.