Modesto School District enrollment falling as campus readies to open

Modesto's five public high schools were bulging with students in fall of 2001 when voters were asked to raise property taxes for two new campuses.

Modesto City Schools had nearly 14,000 high school students then, and it estimated enrollment would swell beyond 15,000 by 2005.

Voters overwhelmingly agreed the new schools were needed, and they passed a school bond to help build them. Enochs High opened in 2006, and Gregori High opens this summer.

But will there be students to fill them?

Only 14,206 high school students are expected to show up for classes when the new year starts Aug. 11. That's about how many students there were eight years ago.

Modesto's high school enrollment peaked at 14,531 in fall of 2005, and it has been declining steadily since.

That enrollment isn't likely to grow anytime soon.

The eight Modesto-area elementary school districts that feed into the Modesto City Schools High School District have lost nearly 4,400 students over the past eight years.

With Stanislaus County's unemployment rate topping 18 percent, families leaving because of the foreclosure crisis and virtually no new homes being built, it likely will take years to return to pre-recession enrollment levels.

California funds its public schools based on enrollment. So declining enrollment means shrinking school budgets.

Modesto's high schools, in fact, expect to lay off about 15 teachers this summer, and retirees won't be replaced.

That is partly because tight budgets have forced Modesto City Schools to cut $25 million, about 10 percent, of its general fund budget for the 2010-11 school year.

To do that, the district will increase class sizes to reduce the number of teachers. The maximum high school class size for core academic courses will be increased by one student to 39 students per class.

Gregori High has 95 classrooms, not counting all the facilities for physical education courses.

"We're going to have empty beautiful classrooms," said Megan Gowans, the Modesto Teachers Association's executive director. "We're losing teachers, and we absolutely need fewer classrooms now."

Modesto City Schools Superintendent Arturo Flores doesn't see it that way.

"The increased class size and enrollment decline will alleviate some of the overcrowding. Gregori will have empty classrooms as a result of starting with two grade levels (freshmen and sophomores) in 2010-11," Flores wrote in response to enrollment questions from The Bee.

In a later interview, Flores described Modesto's existing six high schools as being "pretty impacted." He said the district's goal is to have about 2,000 students on each of its high school campuses.

"There's a lot of research that points to the advantages of small learning communities," Flores explained.

But it costs more money to operate seven high schools than it does six. That includes higher utility and operating costs, plus extra staff. Gregori's principal alone, for example, earned more than $135,500 last year, and that was before the school opened.

Now Gregori must employ its own secretaries, maintenance staff, cafeteria workers and custodians. Some of those employees will be shifted from Modesto's other high schools, but some -- such as two extra grounds- keepers -- are new hires for the financially strapped district.

"We knew five years ago we had declining enrollment," Gowans said. "Many times (the teachers union) asked the school district, 'Why are you going to build Gregori?' ... But there was never really a serious study of other options besides opening it."

Flores said his district built Gregori "because we had an obligation to taxpayers and students. The greater Salida community was expecting this school to be built. They have been paying (Mello-Roos property) taxes for this over the last two decades."

By passing the 2001 school bond, Flores said, voters endorsed building Enochs and Gregori.

"The schools were built to expand the capacity and to prepare for the future enrollment trends and patterns," Flores wrote in a statement. "Plans have to be strategically developed for 30 years out in preparation for the demands placed on the schools. The district and board made the right decision in fulfilling its obligation to the public and students."

Flores said the "community should be proud of the district on following through with the promise to complete both schools."

School board member Cindy Marks agrees that Gregori is needed.

"Our high schools have been over capacity for at least a decade," Marks said. "We planned for the future. Modesto will recover and start growing again."

But rumors persist that declining enrollment and shrinking state funds may force one of Modesto's older high schools -- such as Downey or Davis -- to close.

"I think everything should be put on the table," Gowans said about possible campus closures. "I would like to see an energy analysis of all the sites."

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

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