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Thursday, May 17, 2007 | When voters approved $1.51 billion worth of bonds in 1998 to help relieve overcrowding in the San Diego Unified School District, the school system projected that more than 156,000 students would be attending its campuses a decade later. Instead, schools will likely enroll fewer than 130,000 students.

In fact, instead of growing, student numbers have actually declined in recent years, and are projected to continue to do so through the rest of the decade, forcing school officials to consider closing down some sparsely populated campuses even as new ones open their doors. The numbers also mean that one of the 13 new schools promised under Proposition MM won’t be built at all, and the school board will soon decide whether to scrap plans for another, a middle school planned in the Barrio Logan area.

District officials say their estimates were the best available at the time. No one, they explain, could have predicted the combination of rising home prices, falling birth rates and new migration patterns that are blamed for the lower-than-expected attendance at the city’s schools.

Though the 37,000 units of new housing forecasted by the San Diego Association of Governments, a regional planning group, have been built, many of the new units have come in the form of downtown condos and apartment buildings, which are less likely than single-family homes to house school-age kids. More military families than expected have also made their homes just outside the city limits, putting them under the jurisdiction of neighboring school systems. And the number of youngsters entering kindergarten fell short of district estimates.

“We weren’t the only ones who were expecting growth in our county,” said Roy MacPhail, the district’s director of instructional facilities planning and its former demographer. “I was in good company in terms of assumptions that were being made … for future trends in population.”

Approved by 78 percent of voters in 1998, Proposition MM represented the biggest public works project in San Diego County history.

At the time, the district enrolled 138,500 students. That figure was expected to increase to 156,474 in the 2008-09 academic year. The $1.51 billion, earmarked to rebuild three schools, construct 13 new ones and modernize the remaining 161 campuses, was described by the district as a down payment on an estimated $4 billion on deferred maintenance needed to fix rotting campuses, ease overcrowding and prepare for future growth.

But since the measure’s passage, the district’s enrollment has shrunk.

In 2008, San Diego Unified’s student population will likely be at least 15 percent lower than the estimates included in the district’s 1998 long-range plan. Charter schools, a relatively new addition largely unmentioned in the plan, will enroll another 10 percent of the district’s students. Operated with much independence from the district bureaucracy, many of the charter schools lease their own facilities or compensate the district for the use of its campuses.

And at some schools, actual enrollment could be off even more. Barnard Elementary, for example, would need to more-than-double its current student population of 155 over the next year to meet the projection of 326 students made in 1998. Encanto Elementary, projected to enroll 1,147 students by 2008, currently has 774.

“When you’re doing a long-range plan, and you’re talking about facilities needs, you’re bound to overstate, I think, a little,” said John de Beck, the only school board member in office at the time the master plan was drafted. “Twenty-five percent for a 10-year period is not that bad, I don’t think I could blame people for that.”

The district’s shrinking student pool has affected more than just construction plans. Slowing revenue, which is based on attendance, has also prompted layoffs, and the prospect of further job cuts has fueled a recent unionization push by principals and other central-office administrators.

District staff has also asked the school board to close or consolidate several shrinking schools, though board members have so far rejected such proposals.

Like de Beck, taxpayer watchdogs, including the Independent Citizens Oversight Committee created to make sure the bond money was spent correctly, say they don’t blame the school district for the inaccurate estimates.

“I don’t think this is an example of the district overstating the figures to pass their bond measure,” said Lani Lutar, head of the San Diego County Taxpayers Association. “No one in the region anticipated the enrollment figures to drop as significantly as they did.”

Jon Tibbitts, a civil engineer on the oversight board, said the committee believes that all of the bond money has been used to meet the current needs of the district’s kids.

“We are comfortable that everything has been properly accounted for,” he said, explaining that the district would be justified in not building the two unnecessary schools.

“You don’t want to build something that is no longer needed,” he added, “that would be a greater sin than not building it.”

Even with fewer schools to pay for, the district still expects Proposition MM money to run short and will have to rely on additional state dollars to complete the projects originally promised under bond measure. That’s because efforts to modernize existing district schools are costing far more than originally estimated, thanks in part to the same forces that have depressed student enrollment. For example, the housing boom that priced many younger families with school-aged kids out of the city also inflated the prices of raw materials used in construction.

“I think a lot of people were wrong about both the building boom and the declining enrollment,” de Beck said.

Nor is San Diego Unified the only district struggling with what to do when plans drafted years ago no longer represent the reality on the ground. Last week, the Grossmont Union High School District board delayed a final decision on plans to build a new high school in the Alpine area. Though the campus was promised under a 2004 bond measure passed by voters, shrinking student numbers have raised questions about whether the new school is even necessary. The community remains divided on the issue.

Lutar said the changes in student projections have taught the taxpayers association, which had endorsed both bonds, to look more closely at future proposals for borrowing, especially ones designed to cover projects years into the future.

“Having experienced Prop. MM, we now have better knowledge of what kind of challenges come up, and why planning is so important,” she said. “Last year, as we were looking at bond measures, and there were quite a few education bond measures, … I researched the proposals more in depth than we ever had, because now we have the benefit of experience.”

In San Diego Unified, officials say that the money invested in building new schools and expanding old ones has been spent well because the largest population drops have not necessarily occurred in the same areas where the new facilities are located.

“In one part of town, you might be declining, but in another, you might be growing. Scripps Ranch was growing dramatically, so we had to build schools in Scripps Ranch,” MacPhail said.

In fact, Dorothy Leonard, the ICOC chair, said she expects the district to ask taxpayers for more money when the current bond is exhausted to help pay for an extensive backlog of maintenance needs. Even with fewer numbers, the district needs habitable schools, she said, and the heating systems at some district sites are “so old that they can’t be put together with chewing gum anymore.”

“It would be nice if everyone could project accurately,” Leonard said. But “kids don’t come in nice neat packages. It’s always a challenge to have the right schools in the right neighborhoods.”

Please contact Vladimir Kogan directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

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