By Karen Wilkinson

Triplicate staff writer

A falling birth rate coupled with a recent retiree influx are just some of the factors playing a role in the Del Norte Unified School District's declining enrollment trend.

andquot;There are fewer kids and we're getting a little better (daily) attendance, but not enough to make up for the drop in enrollment,andquot; said Rodney Jahn, deputy superintendent of business affairs.

Since 1998, fewer and fewer students are attending district schools, a trend that can be traced back to shifting demographics, including families moving away from the area to find employment, Jahn said.

Nearly 5,000 students from kindergarten to 12th grade were enrolled at district schools in 1998. Now just more than 3,500 are enrolled.

The county's population and school district population rose a bit in the early 1990s, after Pelican Bay State Prison opened, andquot;but since then it's been slowly reducing,andquot; he said.

But changes to the county's demographics aren't the only piece of the puzzle so are competing schools, such as alternative education and charter schools.

andquot;Of course charter schools have an effect,andquot; said school board member Bill Maffett. andquot;Castle Rock (Charter School) has pulled kids from the district schools.andquot;

Castle Rock Charter School, an at-home county office of education school, opened the 2001-2002 academic year. Its enrollment took a dramatic hike afterward, most notably the 2003-2004 year, with more than 1,000 students.

However, changes to the charter, including no longer allowing students from Siskiyou and Humboldt Counties to attend and dropping adults from the program, have helped to reduce that number to just under 500 students.

Even so, fewer students means less money for the district to work with, and eventually less personnel.

andquot;The reduced monies is the scary part,andquot; Maffett said. andquot;With every bit of drop in enrollment, it's a dramatic drop in funds. And that translates to reduced general funds.andquot;

One student, presuming he or she attends school regularly, represents $5,543 annually in average daily attendance funds from the state.

Also, some grant programs are based on a district's student population, making competing with other districts more difficult, Jahn said.

andquot;As we decline in enrollment we lose funds in those (grant) programs,andquot; he said.

The overall picture, though it may appear bleak, could improve in the future, Jahn said, saying that enrollment should level out in two years and slightly increase in three.

andquot;It is going to be leveling off and hopefully stabilizing,andquot; Maffett said. andquot;And hopefully (there will be) an upward trend in the next few years.andquot;

But a healthier student population depends on the area's ability to attract families and sustainable jobs.

andquot;We don't necessarily want to encourage people to have more babies, but see the community be more active in economic development so we're able to attract more families and businesses outside the area to come in,andquot; he said. andquot;There need to be jobs. We have the good school and it's a nice environment, so the economy and jobs is the key issue.andquot;