For the first time in four years, end-of-year enrollment for Richmond County schools has increased from the previous year, according to recently released numbers.
Ending enrollment was 32,223 for pre-kindergarten through 12th grade -- 120 more than at the end of 2008-09. Final totals had been declining over recent years.
Increased enrollment doesn't necessarily mean more state funding. That's because the full-time equivalent, or FTE, student count that determines a system's funding puts greater weight on certain categories of students, including those labeled special needs.
"Technically, you could have more kids and get less funding," school system spokesman Louis Svehla said.
School officials say they won't know their FTE count for last school year until later this month.
"Exactly when the earnings sheet will be distributed is an unknown," said Anita Faglier, the school system's director of finance and accounting.
Officials say higher enrollment next year would only add to class sizes. Plans call for 35 teaching positions to be slashed through attrition in an effort to save money amid continued state funding cuts.
"The question is: What's going to show up at the doors this (coming school) year?" Superintendent Dana Bedden asked at a recent budget hearing. "That's a wild card that we are uncertain about."
The system has projected a starting fall enrollment of 31,250 K-12 students, a figure it based the number of teacher contracts on. Add to that about 1,200 pre-K students, and the total would be 32,450 -- about 220 more than the past year's final total and about 1,500 more than what the system started with in 2009-10.
Bedden recently said there has been speculation that enrollment might be increasing at the expense of private schools.
"I would agree that probably the horrendous downturn in our economy has undoubtedly influenced some parents," said John Bartlett, the headmaster for Augusta Christian Schools.
However, "I think we are holding our own well," he said.
Jack Hall, the head of school at Augusta Preparatory Day School, said enrollment was at an all-time high in 2008-09 but declined by 3.1 percent this year.
"The decline was almost exclusively felt in the preschool and Pre-K classes, mirroring a trend nationally in independent schools," he said in an e-mail. "Our enrollment in K through 12 was actually up."
The reason for a drop in preschool and pre-K?
"With the downturn in the economy, it would appear that younger couples with younger children are not as likely to pay for independent school tuition," Hall said.
Erin Lively Kirchhoff, the director of marketing and communications at Westminster Schools of Augusta, said she has seen enrollment grow.
"We are at a record 94 percent retention rate with our students," she said. "We saw an increase in our enrollment year over year for the 2009-10 school year, and we received 11 additional students throughout the school year."
She said enrollment for the coming school year "is actually ahead of where we were at this time last year, and we expect to continue gaining students throughout the summer."
On Tuesday, she said, "we already had 35 more students enrolled than we had at this time last year, and we have waiting lists for two grades."