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Higher housing prices will trigger greater enrollment declines in Napa schools

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Northwood Elementary Fun Run (copy)

Northwood Elementary students cast long shadows in a 2014 fun run. The Napa Valley Unified School District is being told to expect a major drop in students in coming years due to high housing costs, an aging population and a drop in the birthrate.

The Napa Valley Unified School District is facing an accelerating decline in student population over the next decade, leaving officials and trustees facing some tough decisions in the years to come.

NVUSD’s longtime consultants, Jack Schreder & Associates, presented their annual demographic report last Thursday to the school board, one year after they first projected a modest dip in enrollment within 10 years.

Only now, the declines “are speeding up,” according to consultant Jamie Iseman, thanks to the impacts of “increasing housing prices and rents” on families, birthrates and kindergarten enrollments.

Last year, Iseman reported the district would lose 365 students by the middle of next decade. That projection has now more than tripled, with the decline being as great as 1,350 students by 2026-27.

“Napa County is one of the least affordable counties in the country,” said Iseman. “You’re not the most expensive ZIP code,” she added, but when you compare your wages to housing prices, it’s become too costly to live here for many.

Iseman said many families with children “have gotten pushed out” of town. Plus, “there is a lack of affordable housing in all the communities in the county.”

Most of the projected student decline will happen in the city of Napa, which has become more affluent and is aging, said Iseman. American Canyon is expected to see its student population hold steady or increase slightly.

Napa schools could lose more than 1,000 students in total, forcing the district to start deciding how it will manage the effects of this decline.

“We are in need of some serious strategic planning” to address this issue, said Trustee Robb Felder.

Superintendent Patrick Sweeney didn’t go into specifics at the meeting, but warned “there’s going to be some big decisions” to make.

Assistant Superintendent Wade Roach, who oversees the NVUSD budget, said he’s already factoring in the projections for the next school budget in 2017-2018. He said there would be “fairly dramatic impacts” on the budget stemming from the declines.

Sweeney urged the school board to not “brainstorm” in public, and instead called for creating a task force to thoughtfully consider options.

Still, some trustees spitballed ideas, some of which could rile parents.

Longtime Trustee Joe Schunk referenced the closure last decade of three rural elementary schools — Carneros, Wooden Valley and Capell Valley — because of declining enrollments.

“It could be an element” to consider, shuttering schools, said Schunk. “I hope I’m off the board by then.”

Other options tossed around included changes to district policies addressing open enrollment and intra-district transfers, and perhaps luring students from Vallejo.

American Canyon, which is next door to Vallejo, would have no need to draw students in. Their schools are projected to still be largely full.

Napa, however, will bear the brunt of the decline. The consultants projected the Napa/Yountville area (mostly Napa) to lose 1,296 students — from 13,622 currently to 12,326 in 2026-2027.

Schreder & Associates said local birth totals went down numerous times so far this decade: 2010, 2012, 2013 and 2015.

“This creates smaller kindergarten” classes, they wrote in their report, which, in turn, produce enrollment declines as they replace larger classes of older students moving through the system.

“There is now a ‘bubble’ of smaller cohorts that must pass through NVUSD before enrollment can increase,” they wrote.

The consultants attributed the loss of students and fewer births to changing demographics brought on by the high cost of housing locally and in the region.

“The Bay Area housing crisis has had a significant negative impact on NVUSD,” the report says. “The District is shifting demographically, aging, and becoming more affluent, with corresponding declines to the relevant school aged population.”

The report included some startling facts and numbers on the housing market, beginning with San Francisco, which has acted like a rock dropped in a pond, creating powerful ripples through Bay Area towns.

In just over three years, from January 2012 to spring 2015, median home prices in San Francisco almost doubled from about $700,000 to about $1.3 million, the consultants reported using data from Paragon Real Estate Group.

“Prices in San Francisco drive much of the trend in the Bay Area, since individuals and families priced out of the San Francisco market tend to raise prices in other areas as they seek to relocate and bring larger budgets with them,” Schreder and Associates said.

They also revealed that Napa County hasn’t helped itself, creating an imbalance between demand and supply for housing.

Over the last five years, the county’s population increased by 5,000 to 7,000, equivalent to the population of Calistoga, according to the consultants. During this same period, the county added only about 550 housing units.

“With supply falling so far short of demand, the cost of housing has increased significantly,” the report said. “Napa County was recently ranked by real estate data company ATTOM Data Solutions as the 8th most unaffordable housing market in the nation.”

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