James Rufus Koren, Staff Writer
Created: 01/09/2010 06:11:02 AM PST

San Bernardino County grew last year, but its schools did not – a trend officials can’t explain but concede is draining millions from county schools.

The county’s public schools lost more than 7,800 students, or 1.8 percent of total students, according to data from the state Department of Education.

Dan Evans, a spokesman for County Superintendent of Schools Gary Thomas, said his office noticed the drop in students but isn’t sure what to make of it, especially since school growth and shrinkage doesn’t appear to be concentrated in any one part of the county.

“There’s no trend,” Evans said. “It’s not that the east is experiencing growth and the west is not. It’s very hard to put a finger on where those trends are taking place.”

Wherever students are going, it isn’t to private schools. Ellie Begley, business manager for Ontario Christian Schools said her school has lost about 50 students this year.

“Most private schools are down,” she said.

State records show private schools in San Bernardino County lost 9.5 percent of their students between the 2007-08 and 2008-09 school years.

To add to the confusion, Evans said school districts in some areas show opposing numbers. Districts in the High Desert have grown steadily for years, but now some districts are growing rapidly while others shrink.

School districts in Lucerne Valley and Baker have gained students, while districts in Hesperia, Victorville and Adelanto have lost students.

“All the districts around us are going down, but we’re still going up,” said Tim Ward, assistant superintendent of instruction at Chaffey Joint Union High School District. “Each year they predict we will go down, and each year we continue to grow.”

The numbers, Evans said, “don’t add up.”

What does add up, though, is the revenue lost by county districts. A big chunk of state funding for schools is based on their average daily attendance. Based on losing nearly 8,000 students last year, Evans said county schools probably lost somewhere around $36 million.

School officials said it can be difficult for districts to plan their budgets when enrollment is so shaky, especially in the face of state budget cuts.

A stable student body “is critical,” said Paul Cullen, chief academic officer for the Redlands Unified School District. “You receive funding based on (attendance). So having a consistent population, it does help you when you’re anticipating what the state is going to give you.”

Redlands, like most school districts, lost students between the 2007-08 and 2008-09 school years. But it lost just 55 students, or about one quarter of one percent of its students.

“You love that consistency,” Cullen said.

For schools that are shrinking, though, the lack of consistency makes it hard to predict the next year’s funding.

Worse than that, though, losing students – and therefore money from the state – doesn’t necessarily mean schools need fewer classrooms or fewer teachers, said Maria Garcia, a spokeswoman for San Bernardino City Unified School District.

“You might lose three or four students in a class, but it doesn’t mean it’s cutting down on how many teachers you need,” Garcia said.

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