Enrollment at most Tuolumne and Calaveras county school districts has dropped this fall, continuing a 15-year trend that has seen the number of students in the Mother Lode plummet dramatically.
All but one Tuolumne County school district and one Calaveras County district had their enrollment shrink compared with October enrollment reports last year, though some lost only a few students.
The biggest losses in Tuolumne County were at Sonora Union High School District, which shrank by about 70 students, and Curtis Creek School District, which lost about 50. Belleview School District gained 26 students.
On Oct. 3, when school districts made their annual enrollment report to the California Department of Education, Columbia Union School District had a few more students than it did at the same time last year. The number has since dropped slightly to about 580 students.
Data from Calaveras County schools indicates that three out of four county school districts lost students. The steepest drop was at Calaveras Unified School District, which has about 115 fewer students than it did last year.
Vallecito Union School District lost about 60 students, and Bret Harte Union High School District has about 30 fewer.
Only Mark Twain Union School District had more students than it did last year, a gain of approximately 50. It is adding second- and fourth-grade classes as a result, according to district Director of Business Services Debbie Costello.
Other exceptions to the rule were non-traditional programs. Tuolumne County's Gold Rush Charter School, which operates under Summerville Union High School District, has about 70 more students than it did at this time last year.
Enrollment in Calaveras County Office of Education programs, including Mountain Oaks Charter School, increased by about 40 students.
But total enrollment in both counties has been slipping for the past 15 years, with a loss of almost 3,000 students between the 1996-97 and 2011-12 school years.
In 1996-97, Tuolumne County had about 8,100 total public school students compared with 6,570 in 2011-12. Calaveras County had about 7,470 students in 1996-97 and about 6,070 last year.
This fall's numbers were even lower than expected, according to Tuolumne County Superintendent of Schools Joe Silva.
Not including Gold Rush Charter School or county special education students, the Tuolumne County student population shrank by about 200 students, or 3.5 percent, between October 2011 and this year's fall report.
"It surprised me," Silva said. "I thought we would kind of bottom out with declining enrollment, and we didn't."
Most California school districts are funded on the basis of the number of students who attend, meaning that they lose funding when students leave.
California school districts on the most common funding model receive an average of $5,000 in state funding per student, according to Tami Ethier, assistant superintendent for business services at the Tuolumne County Office of Education.
That means a drop of 10 students could translate into a loss of roughly $50,000 in state funding for the school in question. And the student population doesn't shrink in an orderly fashion, making it more difficult for schools to adjust to the lower funding levels by laying off teachers.
"You lose little bits and pieces here and there," Ethier said. "It's not like you lose one whole fifth-grade class."
Since 2007-08, schools have seen their funding levels slashed due to state budget cuts. Declining enrollment compounds the problem, Ethier said.
Adding to the complications, schools with larger student bodies are able to offer a greater variety of courses than small ones. For example, most Tuolumne and Calaveras county elementary schools are no longer able to sustain their own music programs.
"I would love to see the programs Sonora High School could offer if they had another 500 kids in attendance," Silva said.
In 2000-01, Sonora Union High School District had more than 1,800 students. As of this year's October state report, only 1,180 students were attending -a decline of about 34 percent.
Sonora Elementary School enrolled almost 900 students in 1996-97, more than the number of students who currently attend either Summerville Union High School District or Bret Harte Union High School District.
Today, it has only 660 students. Soulsbyville Elementary School had 730 students in 1996-97 and enrolls about 485 today.
Black Oak Elementary School in the Twain Harte-Long Barn Union School District offers the most dramatic evidence of dwindling student population. The 14-year-old elementary school building has stood mostly empty for about six years.
During the 1996-97 school year, just before the elementary school opened, Twain Harte-Long Barn enrolled about 800 students. It has about 280 this year, representing a drop of roughly 65 percent.
The Pinecrest School, another Twain Harte-Long Barn school, shuttered last spring due to budget constraints. The district's Board of Education is in the process of deciding what to do with the two school buildings.
Like Sonora Elementary, Curtis Creek Elementary School once enrolled almost 900 students. It has only 465 this year. Curtis Creek Principal Terri Bell said she wasn't sure of the factors behind the loss.
"I think it's a lot of things," she said. "We've had people move out of the area. We've had several (students) have to move in with family members out of the district. … It's a tough time for families."
Statewide, public K-12 school enrollment has declined by about 108,000 students since 2004-05.
Larry Cope, director of economic development at the Tuolumne County Economic Development Authority, pointed to a direct link between the shrinking local logging industry and public school enrollment in Tuolumne and Calaveras counties.
The stagnation of the construction industry also contributed to enrollment decline, particularly in the years between 2006 and 2010, Cope said.
"A lot of the individuals who worked in those fields had children in the school system, and they went to look for jobs in other locations," he explained.
He added that the Mother Lode represents a "demographic bubble."
"We are a very popular location to retire," Cope said. "Baby Boomers retire here … they're not going to be bringing people into the school system."
Silva said he sees a solution in reviving the local logging industry and is an advocate for increased timber harvesting, since it would boost the number of families with young children in the area.
In the meantime, though, some community members have argued that Tuolumne County should consolidate it shrinking school districts - which have a combined eight superintendents, including Silva, making a total of almost $1.2 million this year.
Declining enrollment is an "additional argument" in favor of combining smaller districts into larger ones, said Fran Trout, a retired educator now living in Sonora who occasionally attends school board meetings at Columbia Union School District.
"It just seems like it's time, when you put the economy together with the declining enrollment," Trout said.
Contact Brenna Swift at email@example.com or 588-4529.