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Housing Slump Means Lower Numbers for Wake Co. Schools

Slowing growth in Wake County played a part in creating lower than expected attendance numbers for the public school system this year, planners said.

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RALEIGH, N.C. — Slowing growth in Wake County played a part in creating lower than expected attendance numbers for the public school system this year, planners said.

Nearly 6,000 more children showed up for school in 2007 than in 2006 – short of the increase of 8,000 students Wake County Public School System officials had expected. School systems in Mecklenberg and Forsyth counties saw similar down-turns.

"What appears to be most related is the tight housing market in many areas across the country," Chuck Dulaney, WCPSS assistant superintendent for growth and planning, said.

Economists predict that a nationwide housing slump, which began in mid 2005, could cause 1.3 million foreclosures from late 2007 to 2009 and dampen home prices by up to 11 percent.

"In parts of New York, they've had double-digit foreclosure rates," Melanie Wilson, Wake County's planning director, said.

The effects of that national trend recently began to affect the Triangle housing market. Sales of existing homes and buildings in Wake County fell by 12.36 percent in October, contrasted to sales in October 2006. Overall, 6.4 percent fewer building permits were issued in the first nine months of 2007 than the same period for the year 2006.

The slowdown, however, has been uneven. Existing home sales for the year are down by around 7 percent, but September saw the biggest drop with 16.72 percent.

Only two months posted gains in home sales – 2.69 percent in May and 0.3 percent in July.

Officials counted the number of building permits for 10 municipalities and unincorporated land through September of 2007 and 2006. Of those 11 areas, eight saw a decrease in the number of permits issued, two were stable, one had a moderate increase, and four had an increase.

School planners rely on school population and birth rates to estimate future enrollment. Last year, they also used building permits to predict how many students would be in kindergarten. Their numbers, however, were way off.

"It's just a projection. It's not an exact science," Wilson said.

After slowed growth skewed their numbers for the 2007-2008 school year, school and county planners are trying to figure out how to create accurate forecasts. Planners may need to determine how many houses are sitting empty and if the housing slump is just a blip or a long-term trend.

"I guess the question becomes whether subdivisions are built and sold in two years or three years or four years," Dulaney said.

Controversy over year-round schools may also have played a roll in lower attendance, as more parents opt for private schools.

Enrollment numbers affect budget numbers and spending for new schools. David Cooke, Wake's county manager, estimated that schools got $4.8 million more than they needed this year due to lower enrollment.

Cooke suggested cutting WCPSS's' budget by that amount next year, but school officials said it is too early to make that call.

Although the increase of 5,934 students in 2007 was less than projected, the rise was the third-largest in the WCPSS's history. WCPSS also became the largest school system in the state this year with 134,002 students in the first 20 days of the school year, surging past Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools for the first time.

Growth in 2007 also varied widely across the county, with the biggest gains seen in the eastern, western and southern extremes.

Zebulon and Apex saw sizzling increases of 95.5 and 85 percent, respectively, in the number of building permits issued for the first nine months of the year. But Garner dropped by 84 percent and Angier by nearly 77 percent.

Fuquay-Varina had an increase of 33.76 percent. Cary saw an increase of 8.3 percent, while Rolesville and Knightdale were basically stable, with increases of under 1.5 percent.

Six other areas reported lower decreases: Holly Springs 42.8 percent, Wendell 40.5 percent, Morrisville 20.9 percent, Wake Forest 12.6 percent, unincorporated areas 11.8 percent, Raleigh 10.2 percent.

The Wake County Board of Education planned to discuss enrollment projections on Tuesday.