LAND O'LAKES — Pasco County once rated among the nation's fastest growing counties.
The school district grew right along with it, generally at an annual clip of 3 to 5 percent over three decades.
This year, the trend ended.
The Pasco school district is reporting an enrollment dip — the first since at least 1986, as far back as the district's annual records go.
It's just a slight drop: 94 students in all, less than one percent. But it represents a significant shift for the district that historically could count on extra students and the money attached to them, even as most of the rest of Florida felt the pinch of shrinking revenue and shrinking population.
"This is a real change," School Board chairwoman Joanne Hurley said. "It's a reality that is hitting us now."
The Florida Legislature set a budget for the district based on an increase of 684 students. Falling far short of that projection means that Pasco schools will have to return funding for 778 students, or about $5 million. The board set aside close to that amount in its spending plan, calling the state's estimates optimistic.
A cut in available revenue will force the board to consider other actions that other districts have faced already, Hurley added.
"We're going to have to look at facilities in the light that other districts do," ensuring they are used most efficiently, she said. "This will complicate our budget even further."
School district planning director Chris Williams said he did not expect enrollment to rise much this year. Neither did he expect a dip, though.
As he prepares to make projections for 2011-12, Williams said he needs to carefully consider the October student count and its implications.
"The question is whether it's a new trend," he said.
Overall, the district enrollment came in at 66,427. That total included decreases in elementary and middle schools, and increases in high schools, education centers, charter schools and alternative programs.
Four west Pasco elementary schools — Cypress, Fox Hollow, Gulf Highlands and Schrader — showed some of the steepest declines, a combined loss of 147 students. Officials speculated that the high unemployment rate led families elsewhere in search of work.
Other areas showed rising school enrollment. But in total, they could not carry the district to another year of increased enrollment.
Pasco's student population gains officially began in 1986, the earliest year for which the district has detailed student enrollment data available. But it might extend as far back as 1976.
In that year, the district had 14,034 students. By 1986, enrollment had more than doubled to 29,006. But there's not enough information available to know if the number went up every year.
After 1986, district data shows rising enrollment with each school year. In the early 2000s, the district posted increases of 2,000 or more children annually.
The past two years threatened to end Pasco's long-running school growth. But it wasn't until this year that it happened.
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at www.tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.