Student numbers dropping in Gilroy

Prospects of lost revenue loom over district

Despite a booming housing market in South County, with a substantial increase in inventory over the last decade, Gilroy schools will serve nearly 650 fewer students in 2023 than they had in 2013, according to the latest enrollment projections.

The district has formed a committee to explore the possibility of closing one of its elementary schools based on declining enrollment.

“It’s very perplexing what’s happening to our Gilroy demographics,” said Gilroy Unified School District Supt. Deborah Flores of the projections presented to the board of education in January. “What’s happening here is unique and nobody really knows exactly why.”

It’s not unique to Santa Clara County, where nearly three-quarters of the local school districts are experiencing some rate of declining enrollment, including districts like Morgan Hill, Evergreen, Oak Grove, Cupertino, Milpitas and Santa Clara.

Most other Bay Area cities don’t have the same room for growth as Gilroy. In the last two years alone, the City of Gilroy has issued 476 building permits for single-family and multi-family housing.

Even with this amount of new development, Tom Williams of Enrollment Projection Consultants forecast the continued trend of declining enrollment for Gilroy schools for years to come. His projections are mostly based on a low birth rate in the “95020” zip code and the county, combined with the decreasing affordability of new housing.

“The total enrollment after 2020 should be below the current figure, with large classes graduating from (12th grade) and continued small incoming kindergarten classes,” concluded Williams in his report to the board Jan. 17. “The projected net difference over the next five years is a decline by 259 students, with greater decline possible.”

Flores echoed those findings, noting that Gilroy experienced high school graduation classes of about 950 students, with incoming kindergarten classes totaling fewer than 700 students. The difference of more than 200 students parallels the declining enrollment trends that have hit Gilroy schools.

The new housing boom was estimated to bring in one new student for every two single-family houses. However, Gilroy home sales have not garnered those results.

In the case of Alexander Station, a new large affordable housing apartment building in south Gilroy, the district and demographer explained that the families moving in already live in town so they are not adding as many new students as anticipated. They had projected three new students per four units at Alexander.

“The district is responding to the situation as it happens and trying to stay ahead of things,” Board President James Pace said.

As a byproduct, beginning in 2016 into 2017, Gilroy schools have recorded a steady decline in enrollment, dropping from a high of 11,372 in 2016 to below 11,000 in 2018, according to the GUSD database.

“First, we’ve learned it’s hard to predict the future,” said Pace of enrollment projections. “But our neighbors to the north in San Jose have been losing lots of students for several years and really facing hard times.”

“The wave is kind of heading south,” he said.

Oak Grove School District in San Jose recently closed four elementary schools due to its severe decrease in student enrollment, and Gilroy is now on a similar track, considering the closure of one primary school before the 2020-21 school year if enrollment dips further.

Seven of GUSD’s eight elementary schools experienced a drop in enrollment from the 2017-18 to the 2018-19 school years, and all of them have seen a drop in numbers over the last eight years, according to staff. Elementary school enrollment has decreased by 327 students overall over the last two years, which resulted in $3.7 million in lost revenue.

“When families leave our district, we ask them why they are leaving and where they are going?,” said Flores, adding that more affordable areas such as Hollister and Bakersfield are two popular destinations.

“I’ve been an administrator for a long time and I’ve seen ups and downs with enrollment and some day Gilroy probably will grow,” Flores continued. “But we have to worry about what’s happening next year and plan for the worst.”

“We’ll all be thrilled if the trend turns around at some point,” she said.

In the interim, the district has formed a committee to explore the very real possibility of closing one of its elementary schools based on declining enrollment. After coming to a consensus, the committee will report to the board and recommend whether to close a school at a future meeting.

“The board ultimately makes the decision to close a school, which school to close and, then after that decision, the board and staff will decide what we will use the building for,” said Flores, who would not recommend selling off the land. “Our recommendation would be to find a revenue generating option in the interim so when the enrollment does shift and start to increase that we have a school ready to go.”

It wasn’t too long ago that Gilroy leaders were preparing to build a new elementary school with bond dollars. After reviewing the enrollment numbers in the primary grades, they changed course and instead dedicated those funds to renovating their aging middle schools at South Valley and Brownell.

Gilroy elementary schools enrollment numbers

2011-12: 5,070

2012-13: 5,136

2013-14: 5,189

2014-15: 5,093

2015-16: 5,056

2016-17: 5,072

2017-18: 4,904

2018-19: 4,745

infobox 2

Gilroy (95020) birth rates

2004: 925

2005: 935

2006: 1,019

2007: 999

2008: 988

2009: 981

2010: 913

2011: 879

2012: 839

2013: 829

2014: 849

2015: 843

2016: 827

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