Originally created 09/21/03

Georgia faces pupil explosion



ATLANTA - It would take 90 new schools to handle the number of toddlers the state added between 2000 and 2002. The state's 7.2 percent growth rate for the under-5 set was topped only by Hawaii and the District of Columbia.

The number of senior citizens also increased. Georgia's 3.1 percent gain in the 65-and-older category was surpassed by just 10 other states.

The growth in the bookend categories of Georgia's population classifications, reported in Census Bureau estimates released last week, might give the state some bragging rights but also could be cause for concern, some say.

"The public policy implications from the growth in both the young and old are just incredible because of the specialized care both need," said Doug Bachtel, a University of Georgia population expert.

The Census Bureau estimate showed Georgia added 43,605 children younger than 5 between 2000 and 2002, boosting the numbers in that category from 605,062 to 648,667.

"Eventually, all those kids will be in the public school system. It might not be immediately, but eventually you will have to have classrooms and teachers and supplies and materials," said Bill Tomlinson, a former director of the state Office of Planning and Budget.

The growth rate is about twice what the state expected, and the cost in tax revenue could be about $100 million, he said.

Because not all of those young Georgians will start school at the same time, that bill won't have to be paid immediately. The state probably can absorb the cost if the economy recovers, as expected, from a two-year slump, Mr. Tomlinson said.

At the other end of the population category, Georgia gained 24,767 people who are 65 and older, raising the total from 788,885 to 813,652.

It is a population the state would like to see grow, in the belief that retirement communities and senior services are one way to boost the economy. Toward that end, in 2006 the state will allow senior citizens to protect more of their retirement income from state taxes.

"We can expect the elderly to increase for a couple of reasons," Dr. Bachtel said. "One is, we're living longer. Also, Georgia is a growth state. They are moving to areas of scenic beauty, and we have that in Georgia. And we have a significant number of military bases, so we can attract military retirees who want to be close to a base."

Like the young who will eventually need school services, though, an aging population also places demands on the state for health and transportation services.