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Schools face an onslaught

An additional 40,000+ students expected by 2010

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If you thought Utah classrooms were packed now, consider this: The state could have 40,000 to 100,000 additional schoolchildren in the next 10 years, depending on whose numbers you look at.

Any way you look at it, the public school system is going to be stressed. And state officials are looking for new revenue streams, encouraging sound planning, and praying for a robust economy.

"I think the good thing is we have a heads-up on this," deputy state superintendent Gary Carlston said Wednesday. "Long term, I think that as Utahns, we are going to need to put additional funding in public education to meet these needs, even with all the other factors in place."

The U.S. Department of Education this week released a report on "the baby boom echo," or baby boomers' grandchildren, who are expected to boost public high school enrollment by nearly 9 percent and require 75,000 additional schoolteachers by 2010. This year, the nation's public and private schools will enroll 53 million students.

Growth is hottest in the West, where enrollment is to jump 5.7 percent. Idaho is expected to have 14.1 percent more students; however, Montana's enrollment is expected to drop 3.2 percent. In contrast, Southern states would see 0.5 percent more students, while the Midwest and Northeast enrollments would drop 2.8 percent and 4.6 percent, respectively.

Utah is to see 40,000 more schoolchildren, bringing the total to 523,000, according to the report. That's an 8.3 percent increase — the eighth-highest in the nation — compared to a national average increase of 0.1 percent.

But the State Office of Education foresees a different picture for Utah. It projects a whopping 100,000 new students by 2010, for a total of 580,000 students enrolled in public schools.

The Governor's Office of Planning and Budget estimates that by 2010 Utah will have about 598,000 school-age children, some of whom will attend private and home schools. It estimates about 485,000 5- to 17-year-olds live in Utah now.

"In 2003, we start a new wave in increases in our school-age population. These are the grandchildren of baby boomers," said Natalie Gochnour, the office's deputy director.

State numbers are calculated using birthrates, Carlston said. Federal statistics, revised annually, reflect actual school enrollments and other demographic and economic education.

Keep in mind, those kids will need teachers, books, buses, and as many as 124 more school buildings, Carlston said.

Typically, buildings are the responsibility of school districts, paid with their share of property taxes.

Yet property owners in growing districts such as Jordan, the state's largest, already are feeling taxed, following a $154 million bond in 1997, a tax hike last year and probably another $18 million tax increase this year, mostly to address building needs. The 73,000-student district expects to enroll 87,500 children by 2008 and need five new elementaries, two middle schools and one high school.

The numbers are overwhelming for anybody, not to mention a state that spends the least per student in the nation and where teachers already complain of relatively low salaries, high class sizes and not enough textbooks to go around (the subject of a current legislative audit).

But there is some good news: Utah's ratio of dependents for every 100 people of working age is expected to stay the same through the same time period, Gochnour said. In other words, there will be the same proportion of taxpayers to cover the influx of students as there is now, thanks to Utah's balanced demographics.

A legislative task force working to find more funding options for education has worked under the assumption that 100,000 more schoolchildren would be in the classroom by 2010. One option is to give local school districts more authority to raise property taxes.

"We've still got a lot of issues to study," said House Majority Leader Kevin Garn, task force co-chairman. "We definitely have to start preparing for the future. Whether that includes a tax increase or not, it's a little early. But we definitely have to do some planning as that bubble moves through the system."

Senate Minority Leader Scott Howell said taking more time to pay back money borrowed for road construction would free more funds for schools. Democrats floated the idea last Legislature.

"(The enrollment boom) is a time bomb ticking that will explode in the face of economic development and educational opportunity" if unaddressed, Howell said. "This should not be a partisan issue, but about children."

E-MAIL: jtcook@desnews.com