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School Enrollment Drops

School Board will receive less money to provide for fewer students.

Enrollment on the first day of classes at Arlington Public Schools decreased for the fourth consecutive year, spurring fears that less money might be available to spend on teachers and educational programs.

The number of students who showed up for the opening of the school year on Sept. 6, was 17,083. That was 473 fewer than the previous year, said Arlington Superintendent Robert G. Smith.

In 2001, 17,952 students were present for the start of school.

The total enrollment figures will not be known until the end of the month, because many preschoolers do not attend the official first day and other pupils who have just moved to the area were unable to complete the necessary paperwork and tests in time.

“It is a concern but not a dramatic trend,” said Arlington School Board Chair David M. Foster. “It has been declining slowly in recent years, and as best as we can tell it will continue to do so.”

There is a provision in the School Board’s revenue sharing agreement with the county that stipulates that the school budget fluctuate according to the number of students in the school system.

Based on the falling enrollment, the school board would receive $2.7 million less than originally anticipated for the 2007 fiscal year, said Arlington School Board Vice-Chair Mary H. Hynes.

“The money is tied directly to services provided for kids,” Hynes said. “When we have fewer children we have less money.”

Hynes predicted that teachers and teaching assistants were the most likely to be negatively affected by the dip in students. Of the approximately 40 school positions eliminated from the budget last year, the majority were teaching slots.

Many school system administrators are nearing retirement age, and it is possible that those job functions could be combined, Hynes said.

“We would lose some good teachers,” Foster said. “I hope we will be looking to cut administrative costs and preserve as long as possible positions that directly instruct children.”

Other school officials played down the magnitude of the budget losses.

“We would lose money but wouldn't be in dire straits,” Smith said. “We would have less students to serve.”

NEW OPPORTUNITIES may also be created from the declining student population, especially for those who favor smaller class sizes. Fewer students could lead to greater attention on individual needs. Foster said that with smaller classes he would push for new initiatives, like introducing Chinese and Arabic language classes.

Another consequence would be the opening up of more classroom space for educational and training programs. This could lead to the expansion of schooling for four-year-olds and the consolidation of the Arlington Employment and Education Program (REEP), an adult education initiative that is currently taught at facilities strewn throughout the county.

“The program has been growing and been squeezed in its current space,” Hynes said. “Now we could offer space in school buildings.

Though Arlington school officials may differ on the consequences of the drop in enrollment, they all agree on the root cause: the exorbitant increase in housing prices in the county. Many apartment buildings are being converted into condominium complexes, forcing less affluent families to move to more affordable locations. The trend has been most apparent in the southern part of Arlington.

As the Shirlington Overlook apartments are being transformed into more expensive condos, many of the 300 students who live there may be leaving, said Allison Denton, a facilities planner for Arlington Public Schools.

The only six neighborhood schools that have seen a rise in the student population over the past four years were in the northern part of Arlington.

There may be some hope for those worried that the vitality of Arlington may dissipate as young families move elsewhere. According to Superintendent Smith, the largest class in the entire school system this year is kindergarten.

Whether Arlington can retain the members of the class of 2019 may well define the future direction of the school system.