For the first time since President Ronald Reagan, big hair rock bands and Sally Ride in space, enrollment could drop in the Clark County schools.
Enrollment could be off by as much as 2,000 students, marking the first decline since the 1983-84 school year, officials said Thursday.
The school district had 309,144 students on Tuesday, down from 311,240 a year ago. School officials had anticipated enrollment to reach 313,688 students this year.
"We're eating a little bit of crow," said Sharon Dattoli, the director of demographics for the district.
There's a slight chance the numbers could improve because the actual tally to determine state funding and school staffing will be today. The count will be announced Monday.
Once accustomed to rapid growth of 10,000 to 12,000 students each year, school officials have struggled to anticipate enrollment amid the economic uncertainty and high unemployment.
"If anybody has a crystal ball that works, we would like to have it," Jeff Weiler, the district's chief financial officer, said Thursday during a meeting of the Bond Oversight Committee.
In the short term, the district is protected from repercussions of declining enrollment because a "hold harmless provision" guarantees the school district will be funded at last year's enrollment numbers if there's a drop. The state is funding Clark County at $5,025 per student.
Because the schools were only staffed at 97 percent of their anticipated need, layoffs are not likely, officials said.
Still, the leveling off in enrollment has implications for long-term planning. This fall, the School Board must decide on whether to organize a referendum for 2010 to get voter approval for a new 10-year-bond program to fund any future school construction and capital improvements.
"It's a tough decision," said Joyce Haldeman, the associate superintendent for community relations.
Even without the need for new schools, district officials estimate that they need to spend between $200 million to $300 million annually to maintain its buildings and property, which are valued at more than $5 billion.
District officials said they will be tracking demographic trends to see whether this year is a blip or part of new trend in flat or declining enrollment.
The last drop in enrollment in the early 1980s turned out to be a blip. The 1983-84 school year had 424 fewer students than the previous school year, but growth picked up enough that enrollment for the next year, 1984-85, was larger than it was in 1982-83.
Last year, growth leveled off to 1 percent. The School Board reconsidered the construction of four new elementary schools for the 2010-11 school year but gave approval based on projections of growth of 1 to 2 percent, still providing 1,000 to 2,000 additional students.
Dattoli, the director of demographics, wonders whether her projections were off because more students are enrolling in private and charter schools, which operate independently of the district.
Anecdotally, this does not appear to be the case. Officials at large private schools such as Bishop Gorman and Faith Lutheran Junior and Senior High School said their enrollment is only up by 30 to 40 more students than last year.
Kevin Dunning, the executive director of Faith Lutheran, said interest in his school seemed high in the spring during the news of state funding cuts. Dunning said his school, especially in the middle school grades, offer many programs and athletic opportunities that the district cannot afford.
Faith Lutheran charges $8,736 per student and Bishop Gorman charges $11,150.
Tuition at the Alexander Dawson School at Rainbow Mountain, 10845 W. Desert Inn Road, is closer to $19,000 and enrollment was up 15 students.
"We've picked up a few students, but I don't think most are coming from the public schools," said Mike Imperi, the headmaster of Dawson.
Brian Siegel, director of Henderson International School, said his enrollment declined by 40 students.
"It's the economy," he said.
His high school tuition is about $17,000.
In another sign of the hard times, fund-raising was down by $118,000 at the annual banquet for the Public Education Foundation, which supports the district. Saturday's dinner honoring pop star Marie Osmond and Pat Mulroy, the general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, raised $434,000 compared to $552,000 last year.
Contact reporter James Haug at jhaug@ reviewjournal.com or 702-374-7917.