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As they prepare their budgets, school districts in Salt Lake County are observing a puzzling trend: enrollment in the Granite, Jordan and Salt Lake districts is dropping off, despite continued in-migration to the Beehive State.

The Salt Lake City District estimates it will lose more than 450 students from the previous year, said district business administrator Gary Harmer. The trend is expected to continue. Elementary enrollment projections prepared in 1994 place the 1998 enrollment in the Salt Lake district at the lowest level since 1981."I think we're all wondering where they've gone. I can only guess because I don't know for sure. Apparently, rents have increased so much they can't afford to live here and they've moved out. The question is, where have they moved to? Salt Lake County isn't getting the growth. Some of it may be they're going to private schools."

Granite has experienced a trend of declining enrollment. Between the 1993-94 and 1994-95 school years, the state's largest school district lost 1,100 students.

For the first time since World War II, Jordan District is anticipating virtually no growth in its student population. Meanwhile, Mur-ray's head count has remained stable, according to Utah State Office of Education statistics.

Hal Robins, coordinator of school finance and statistics, said one reason for the drop in student numbers may be the changing nature of Utah's "immigrant" families.

"Student numbers are falling off dramatically. Are the characteristics of our immigrants different than before? Typically, they've been young people with young children. Our enrollment data simply isn't supporting that," Robins said.

In-migration has brought at least 2,000 students to the state since 1992. But in 1994, the number dropped to 800 students, Robins said.

Even though the metropolitan districts have experienced enrollment loss or flat projections, the state is gaining students overall. Last year, more than 2,700 students joined Utah's schools, with the Washington School District absorbing a third of them, Robins said.

School officials believe some of the loss in the inner city may be due to more Utahns moving off the Wasatch Front to more rural parts of the state. Said Robins: "If you look around the state, people are moving around more than they have in the past."

And growth has been experienced in unlikely places. "In 1994, Tooele increased very unexpectedly by 154 students. Carbon went up by 93. That might not sound like a lot but that's a big impact on those districts," Robins said.

Growth also has been pronounced in the Nebo District, which added 459 students, and the state office has observed steady growth in the North Summit, South Summit and Park City districts.