Wake schools stand to miss $3 million

Enrollment growth not enough to capture county money

Staff WriterSeptember 12, 2008 

— Slower-than-expected enrollment growth this year means Wake schools are unlikely to get $3 million from county commissioners wary about projections that don't match the number of students attending class.

In their annual budget released earlier this year, commissioners withheld the $3 million to see whether the school system would reach the projected enrollment of 140,443 students. But with Wake only at 137,601 students this week, commissioners don't expect the school system to gain enough new students to get any of that money.

"That $3 million will stay in the county budget,"said Joe Bryan, chairman of the Board of Commissioners.

School board members admit it's unlikely they'll even reach their own revised enrollment projection of 139,247 students. Wake had 134,002 students last year.

"I don't expect it to grow by that much," said school board member Eleanor Goettee. "Everything is slowing down."

Wake is on pace to grow by fewer than 5,000 students for the first time in five years.

The slowdown is being attributed to the weak economy and fewer people moving into the county. Bryan said new home starts in Wake County are down 43 percent.

"The slow growth provides the county the opportunity to catch up with some of the growth we've had," Bryan said.

Last year, Wake grew by 5,930 students, nearly 2,100 students fewer than projected. This sparked complaints from commissioners that the school board should have returned millions of dollars they routed to the state's largest school district based on projections that overshot actual enrollment.

The county's annual budget for the school system was built on an enrollment projection, jointly agreed to by school and county planners, of 140,443 students by the 20th day of classes -- a predicted gain of 6,441 students.

Flow slows

School administrators conceded in June that fewer students were coming than expected for this fall. They slashed the net gain in new students by 1,196, an acknowledgement that the district was unlikely to get much if any of the $3 million.

But when schools opened, even fewer students than expected arrived.

Wake's enrollment on the 10th day of classes was 137,601 students. That's different from a previously reported number because it includes an updated enrollment for Ligon Middle School.

Wake would need to gain 2,842 students by the 20th day of classes Sept. 22 to reach the budgeted projection. To put it in perspective, Wake picked up only 367 students between day 10 and day 20 last year.

Commissioner Tony Gurley said it looks as if the school district will have missed the enrollment by more than 2,000 students for the second year in a row. On top of keeping the $3 million, Gurley said he'll ask the school board to return $1 million for having so many fewer students than expected.

Wake is funded by an average of $2,197 per student by commissioners.

"We didn't withhold enough money from them," Gurley said.

The denial of $3 million comes in a year in which school leaders complain they received $36.2 million less than they wanted from commissioners. Even though they'll miss the projection, Rosa Gill, chairwoman of the school board, said the district should ask for the $3 million anyway.

"We can use the money," Gill said. "It would help the students."

Gurley, a frequent critic of the school system, dismissed the idea.

"They need the money for students who aren't there?" Gurley said. "I'd like for them to make that argument."

keung.hui@newsobserver.com or (919) 829-4534

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