Schools in the El Dorado County community of Georgetown thrived a decade ago, with close to 2,000 students enrolled in classes. Today, barely 1,250 students attend Georgetown schools – a number that will likely continue to fall.
New enrollment projections from the California Department of Finance predict El Dorado will lose another 4,000 students in the next decade, a 15 percent decline. No other California county will lose a higher percentage of its students, the state predicts.
School funding is directly tied to enrollment. Fewer children means less dollars, which can mean staff layoffs, service cuts, school consolidation and even school closures.
Some of those things have already happened in a few districts like Black Oak Mine, the school district serving the hamlet of Georgetown in the Sierra foothills.
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“All of the low-hanging fruit is gone,” Black Oak Mine Superintendent Jeremy Meyers said of attempts to trim the district’s budget. “We continue to make hard decisions.”
California has seen slow population growth over the last two decades. Immigration is declining. Birth rates are falling. More people are leaving California for other states than coming here, largely due to high cost of living.
The state’s economy is doing well, but much of the growth has been concentrated in urban areas. Mountainous counties in Northern California have often struggled to attract the young families that bolster school districts.
El Dorado County has been hit hard by many of those trends. The county’s population is old. It is one of only a handful of counties that saw more deaths than births last year, when its birth rate was the seventh-lowest in California.
Migration into El Dorado County has been positive, with more people coming than going since 2010. But much of that migration has come to the suburban, western side of the county, which includes places like El Dorado Hills and Cameron Park, experts said. Growth in the central and eastern portions of the county has not kept pace.
“In some of the more rural parts of the county, if you are looking for a big business that will support families – there is not an Amazon warehouse in Camino,” said Kevin Monsma, associate superintendent at the El Dorado County Office of Education, referring to a small foothills community near Placerville.
In response, several school districts have consolidated administrative functions, Monsma said. Other districts have combined schools and employ superintendents who also serve as principals.
County education officials have tried to ease the pain by providing some centralized services like internet access and van transportation between schools for special needs students.
“We have about 39 different van routes, from Kyburz down through El Dorado Hills,” Monsma said.
Staff layoffs do occur, officials said, but attrition may account for most future employee losses. El Dorado schools employed about 1,360 teachers during the 2015-16 school year, down by almost 200 from 2007-08.
El Dorado school districts anticipate hiring about 60 new or replacement teachers next school year, state figures show. The county comprises about 8 percent of the Sacramento region’s population, but just 4.5 percent of the region’s projected teacher hires.
The state does not break down enrollment projections by district. Monsma said the foothills and mountainous portions of El Dorado County would likely absorb the bulk of any enrollment declines.
Some districts have their own projections that don’t show lasting enrollment declines. Black Oak Mine expects its enrollment to bottom out around 2020. El Dorado Union High, the largest school district in the county, anticipates slight enrollment growth in the next six years after several years of enrollment losses.
Monsma said he takes the state’s projections at face value but hopes they prove too pessimistic.
“We have a great plan,” he said. “Even better, it doesn’t occur.”