Enrollment has dipped again this year in local elementary school districts, which is mostly attributable to families moving away from the area because they can't afford to live here, district officials say.
The Woodside Elementary School District saw an enrollment decrease of about 6.8% — from 411 students this time last year to 376 students as of Sept. 19.
"I think it's just really difficult to live here (on the Peninsula) right now," said Woodside Superintendent Steve Frank. "Quite a few families told me flat-out they can't afford to live here anymore, so they're moving."
The district conducts exit interviews with families leaving the district, and families said they were moving to places such as Europe, Oregon, Los Angeles and the Central Valley, he said.
Frank is not particularly concerned about the turnover, noting that some of the decrease has to do with the fact that the eighth grade class that graduated in the spring had 15 students more than this year's eighth grade class. About 17 students in the district moved away, while 14 transferred to private schools, he said. The attrition of students leaving for private school is consistent with past years' figures, he said.
The Almanac gathered enrollment numbers for the 2019-20 school year that show:
• Menlo Park City School District: Enrollment remained steady, with a slight increase from 2,926 students last September to 2,932 this September.
• Las Lomitas Elementary School District: down 4.5% from last school year. There are 1,202 students (as of Sept. 16), compared with 1,259 at the same time last year. Enrollment at both district schools (Las Lomitas Elementary and La Entrada Middle School) is down.
• Portola Valley School District: down 4.5%. There are 548 students enrolled in the district as of Sept. 16, compared with 574 students at the same time last year. Numbers are lower than the range of 572 to 612 students demographers projected for this school year, according to a March 2018 presentation to the school board by Enrollment Projection Consultants, a San Mateo-based demographer.
Previously, the booming regional economy led to more families moving into the area, increasing enrollment in local schools, according to a December 2017 report from Enrollment Projection Consultants.
Now, people are moving away once they have children because they can't afford housing, report author Tom Williams wrote.
The median home value in Menlo Park is $2.2 million, according to online real estate platform Zillow. Menlo Park home values have actually decreased 8.8% over the past year, the group says. Zillow predicts values will fall another 4.8% within the next year.
"The high prices of housing may be pushing young families away from PVSD (Portola Valley School District) and other districts in the Bay Area and California," said Superintendent Roberta Zarea. "The nature of employment has shifted such that some families live in the area on a temporary basis."
The Menlo Park district isn't being impacted in the same way as nearby small school districts because Menlo Park's housing stock is different, said Ahmad Sheikholeslami, the district's chief business and operations officer.
That difference "allows people to find entry into multi-housing units (such as) townhomes or condos," he said. "The Encinal (School) boundary area includes the El Camino corridor, where new housing opened up."
There is steady enrollment of students who live in the Willows neighborhood, while in west Menlo Park, Oak Knoll School has seen declining enrollment, he said.
Sheikholeslami expects the district to conduct its next enrollment study next year.
In two to three years, the district could actually experience enrollment growth as new housing projects open along El Camino Real, he said, adding that this could impact capacity at Hillview Middle School.
"(Enrollment is) always complicated and fascinating because we live in a pretty dynamic community," he said. "There's a lot of movement and it's hard to tell if the movement is going to be people looking for work somewhere else or coming in."
Staffing and financial impacts
These local schools are all "community funded," which 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 decreasing enrollment actually means there are more funds available per student.
Dips in enrollment affect staffing needs, superintendents noted. For example, in Woodside, a grade level dropped from three sections down to two, so the district shifted people to different grade levels. The district is not at a point where it needs to cut staff, Frank said.
Decreased enrollment impacts fundraising efforts in the district, said Las Lomitas Superintendent Beth Polito. Monetary donations from fundraisers, primarily from district families, account for about 10% to 20% of the district's operating budget. With fewer families in the district, there will be less money from fundraising, she said.
"(Enrollment) changes seem to be relatively low, so that makes it easier in terms of not having to make any drastic changes anytime soon," she said. "We have some breathing space in the next couple of years."
The districts see some cuts to state and federal funding with enrollment decreases. For example, the Portola Valley district's decline of 26 students this school year will cost it $30,000, Zarea said.
School districts' final enrollment numbers are submitted to the state in early October.