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Tim Myers: Are school-age demographics the SCV's 'Black Swan'?

Posted: January 15, 2010 7:35 p.m.
Updated: January 17, 2010 4:55 a.m.
In his seminal work “The Black Swan,” Nicholas Taleb lays much blame on the tendency to attempt to project out the future on Bill Gates and Microsoft.

Professor Taleb asserts that when people did complex numerical projections by hand, almost all limited them to three years (one seldom found five-year projections) due to the shear amount of calculation work needed to add another year. Since analysts limited their predictions to a short time horizon, accuracy actually remained high.

Well, the introduction of Excel “solved” this problem. Analysts can now prepare 100-year projections, cutting and pasting the prior assumptions into subsequent columns in a matter of moments.

The  problem? A predictor tends to extrapolate recent history over the long term (think real-estate bubble) with sometimes dire effects (think real-estate bubble).

One can only help but wonder whether the Excel projections were running fast and furious while the Saugus Union School District used a windfall from developer fees and bond money to construct and open three brand-new neighborhood elementary schools within the last 10 years, one currently unoccupied.

This now appears like the supreme act of hubris when, within the month of January, the Saugus district will most likely permanently close the always-temporary Bouquet Canyon Elementary School (one will see just what “temporary” means when the district dismantles the campus and plows salt into the ground to deny the site to any future charter schools) and “temporarily” close Emblem Elementary to get the neighborhood used to the probable permanent closure that will come.

The analysis of numbers provides damning evidence of numerical incompetence or hoping for things not yet seen.

From 2000 to 2009, the William S. Hart Union High School District did actually grow from 17,000 students to more than 25,000 — or by 51 percent. This translates into an astounding annual compound growth rate of 4.5 percent annually, with the district adding two new high schools and junior high schools.

But did everyone believe this growth, much larger than prior mean annual growth, would continue indefinitely?

What about the elementary districts that will feed into this burgeoning high school empire? Over the same period the elementary school districts grew only 12 percent, from about 23,000 to 26,000 students, or a rather anemic 1.1 percent compounded per year.

Clearly that does not justify the school-building spree, other than the perceived need for each new neighborhood to possess a neighborhood elementary school the existing demographics could not justify.

What caused this disparity? While some Saugus district officials blame charter schools and home schooling, my analysis indicates an actual  increased participation in the public school system over the last 10 years, with school enrollment increasing at a much faster rate than the overall population.

That leaves only one plausible explanation: A 10-year, school-age child demographic bubble even now bursting on the shores of the local elementary school districts, and about to crash like a catastrophic tsunami on the shores of the Hart district.

Now apparently ignoring the demographic bubble bursting behind it, the Hart district moves forward with the construction of a Castaic high school that under the best circumstance might enroll 1,600 students, and at worst could hover around 1,000 with parents fleeing to post office box addresses in the attendance areas for the remaining large high schools before they wither on the vine. It will cost at least double the current figures mooted by the Hart administration and the various proponents of either site to construct.

Surprisingly, elected individuals who agree entirely with the numerical analysis, and who normally embrace rational thought, state the district must move forward with the school construction because the district “promised” the community of Castaic the high school, and they throw out feeble references to future “growth” in the Newhall Ranch area that could occur when spare liquidity drives the next real estate and housing bubble.

I guess it should surprise no one an educational construction bubble would follow a real estate bubble. But it amazes me the elected officials and professionals charged with running the Hart district would put out to sea with the harsh waves bearing down on them for everyone to see and engage in this folly of building a brand-new, comprehensive high school when all demographic numbers call for a more prudent approach, and yes, probably a 10-year wait to let the demographics sort themselves out before moving forward.

Tim Myers is a Valencia resident. His column represents his own views, not necessarily those of The Signal. “Myers’ Musings” appears Sundays in The Signal.


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