By Johnny Jackson
The Henry County School System is expecting to see no growth next school year.
School officials are projecting that the system will have two dozen fewer students enrolled for the 2009-10 school year than are presently enrolled.
The system -- if it experiences growth at all -- could see its smallest increase in 33 years. According to projections, Henry's student population will decrease next year by 25 students.
The system's student population decreased by 54 students between the 1975-76 and 1976-77 school years.
This year, the student enrollment has fluctuated between 39,000 and 40,000. The latest enrollment figures place the system at 39,665 students, just 790 more than were enrolled last year, and 742 students short of this year's projections.
Enrollment for the 2007-08 school year fell short of projections as well. Expected to grow by 7 percent, Henry only experienced 3.5 percent growth - from 37,468 in 2006-07, to 38,875 in 2007-08.
For the decade between 1996 and 2006, Henry experienced unprecedented growth, at about 8 percent each of the ten years. Ever since, however, growth has diminished by near-equal amounts - 5.7 percent growth in 2006-07, 3.8 percent growth in 2007-08, 2 percent growth this year, and a projected negative growth next school year (2009-10).
The method of projecting year-to-year student enrollments is determined by following potential students in Henry from birth until they enter the public school system, and observing county growth and zoning practices.
Officials have said the enrollment is affected by many factors, both expected and unexpected, but are unsure as to the precise cause of the decline in growth.
Henry County Board of Education Chairman Ray Hudalla said the modest enrollment projections are a silver lining, when considering the pressing need to maintain a balanced budget and build more permanent classrooms to help ease overcrowding at schools.
Next year, the system will open four new schools - Rocky Creek Elementary, Hampton Middle, Locust Grove Middle and Locust Grove High schools - as well as an addition to the existing Cotton Indian Elementary School, in order to help relieve overcrowding at other schools.
Hudalla said the flat line of growth could give the system some time to make accommodations for schools that have been crowded over the past dozen years or so.
"It will give us a chance to catch up," he said. "It's going to be a little easier to budget with all of the [state funding] cut backs. We won't have to hire as many new teachers, we won't have to purchase desks for all those new students, and we won't have to buy more books to accommodate our growth. It will help in those areas."