Enrollment drop puts schools in a financial pinch

Declining enrollment is at the core of budget problems for Modesto school districts, some of which have been losing students steadily since 2002.

The Modesto City Schools elementary district's enrollment, for instance, has declined nearly 20 percent — more than 3,600 students — since 2001.

But that district has yet to close a single campus or lay off a teacher.

Modesto City Schools — which includes elementary and high school districts — estimates it must cut $25 million out of its next budget.

Allocations from the state are shrinking, forcing districts to reduce spending. That's making it financially tough to keep operating schools with dwindling enrollments.

So school closures have begun, and more will come:

Teel Middle School in southeast Modesto's Empire Union School District closed last June.

Muncy Elementary in northwest Modesto's Stanislaus Union School District closed last summer.

Perkins Elementary in northwest Modesto's Salida Union School District will close this summer.

Pearson Elementary on the west side of the Modesto elementary district will close this summer.

The eight elementary school districts that feed into the Modesto City Schools high school district have lost more than 9 percent of their students — nearly 4,400 youngsters — since 2002.

Now the high school district has declining enrollment. It's down 3.5 percent — more than 500 students — from its 2005 peak.

The new Gregori High School, nevertheless, will open this fall as Modesto's seventh public high school. The just-completed campus near Salida, which cost more than $120 million to build, will open with freshmen and sophomores only.

"We're on a campaign to get enrollment back up," said Arturo Flores, superintendent of Modesto City Schools. "I guarantee that when Gregori opens, you'll have people fighting to get into it ... because it's going to offer a ton of options."

Flores expects Gregori to lure students from other school districts — such as Ripon — and private high schools — such as Modesto Christian and Central Catholic.

If that happens, it could slow the Modesto high school district's enrollment decline, but it probably won't stop it.

"I think we will decline over the next four or five years in the high schools," said Dennis Snelling, Modesto City Schools' director of business services.

Snelling said that's OK because "what we wanted was for the high schools to have 2,000 students each." Modesto has about 14,000 high school students, who are divided between six campuses.

Smaller high school classes ahead

But some of the elementary school districts that feed into those high schools are in an enrollment free fall.

"We're sending smaller and smaller classes of students to high school every year," said Robert Price, Empire's superintendent. His enrollments have shrunk by more than 25 percent since 2002.

"When you see housing being built, you think, 'That's going to be more students,' " said Price, recalling how his district was surprised when fewer and fewer youngsters enrolled.

Now, virtually no homes are being built anywhere in Modesto, and vacancy rates are at historic highs throughout the city.

"We have too many schools for the number of students we have," acknowledged Flores, who was hired in 2007. "We probably should have been addressing this in 2002."

With the exception of the 250-student Pearson campus, which has just kindergarten and first-grade classes, it's been decades since Modesto City Schools considered closing a campus.

Flores said he soon will form a school-closure committee to advise him about which campuses should go.

"We're not going to be able to close any other school next year because it's just a long drawn-out process," he said. "It's going to take me a year from now to make sound recommendations."

Empire's superintendent, however, warned that waiting too long can be costly.

"Make the cuts sooner than later," Price advised. "If you put off making $1 million in cuts this year, it means you will have to make $2 million in cuts next year."

Closing Teel Middle School last summer saved the Empire district about $800,000 this school year.

Snelling, the business director, does not think closing a high school will be financially necessary.

"This economy is not permanently down," Snelling said. "It's a temporary problem. You don't want to gut yourself. You have to think long term."

To help boost its long-term enrollment, Modesto City Schools is proposing to open a "virtual high school" in partnership with Kaplan Virtual Education. It would offer online courses that would be available to any student with Internet access.

Modesto City Schools' board will hear a report on that plan when it meets Monday at 6 p.m. at 425 Locust St.

Bee staff writer J.N. Sbranti can be reached at or 578-2196.