By Angela Swartz
Special to The Almanac
Enrollment slightly declined this school year for local elementary school districts, continuing a recent area trend. The drop, local experts say, is due to the migration of young families from the area to find more affordable housing.
Las Lomitas Elementary School District, which serves portions of Menlo Park and Atherton, is one of the area districts with the most significant enrollment dip. Its enrollment dropped 5.4 percent from last school year, according to Sept. 12 enrollment numbers.
"The drop in enrollment was something that the district had expected and we have planned for it in terms of staffing and facilities," district Superintendent Lisa Cesario wrote in an email. There are 1,259 students enrolled this year compared with 1,331 at the end of the 2017-18 school year.
The enrollment numbers are "not going to go back up to where they were in their height," Cesario predicted, adding that the kindergarten classes are coming in with fewer students.
"There are not as many people with kids moving into the area," Cesario said. She noted that there's not as much new housing in the district as there is in nearby areas like Redwood City. "The cost of living in the area is pretty high and there's only so many places to live."
The Almanac gathered enrollment numbers for the 2018-19 school year that show:
● Menlo Park City School District (Menlo Park and Atherton): down 2.2 percent from the 2016 high of 2,999 students. There are 2,932 students currently enrolled in the district. That's a 1.4 percent drop from last school year. This nearly lines up with a demographer's prediction that the district would be at 2,936 students this fall.
● Portola Valley School District: down nearly 5 percent from last school year. There are 574 students enrolled in the district (as of Sept. 6); there were 604 students during the 2017 school year.
● Woodside Elementary School District: down less than 1 percent from the 2012 high of 453 students. Enrollment is stable this year. There are 410 students enrolled (as of Sept. 12) — the same number as in 2017.
Previously, the booming regional economy meant more families moved into the area, increasing births and enrollment in local schools, according to a December 2017 report from Enrollment Projection Consultants, a San Mateo-based demographer.
Now, people are moving away once they have children because they can't afford housing prices, report author Tom Williams wrote.
The median home value in Menlo Park is $2.4 million, according to online real estate platform Zillow. Menlo Park home values have gone up 19.4 percent over the past year, the group says. Zillow predicts values will rise 7.2 percent within the next year.
Between July 2015 and July 2017, Silicon Valley gained 44,732 newcomers, but also lost 44,102 residents, according to a February 2018 survey by Joint Venture Silicon Valley.
"Without question, Silicon Valley is still a hotbed," said Joint Venture CEO Russell Hancock, in a press release. "But our spectacular success has created a harsh environment for families. Housing is out of reach for all but a very few. Those who can't afford it are living challenging lives, or commuting from far-flung places, spending ghastly amounts of time in traffic."
The four school districts cited above are "community funded" (formerly called "basic aid"). This means they receive most of their revenue from local sources, including property taxes, parcel taxes and donations. Little of their funding depends on enrollment, so dropping enrollment actually means there are more funds available per student.
"We do have to cut programs when we're absorbing growth," said Parke Treadway, public information officer for the Menlo Park City School District. "We can reimplement them when we have less kids."
There isn't a huge downside to the dip for the district, she said. If it were more significant, it would make it harder for the district to scale and offer more classes such as world languages.
"It's something we're paying really close attention to," said Terry Thygesen, Menlo Park City School District board president. There is obviously "some financial relief if enrollment does decline to some extent," she added.
It's also important to note that enrollment for kindergarten and sixth grade — bellwether years — remained steady this year, Thygesen said.
Enrollment in the Menlo Park district isn't expected to return to current numbers until new housing is built around 2023, according to Williams' report. There are 580 projected new residences in the next six years, which should bring in about 98 district-enrolled students in 2023, according to the report.
Las Lomitas Superintendent Cesario said her district will maintain programs like electives, "even as our enrollment goes down; we can afford to keep those.
School districts' final enrollment numbers are submitted to the state in early October.