AUGUSTA, Maine — A years-long decline in the number of students who attend Maine’s public schools is expected to continue for another four to five years, according to new Department of Education projections being prepared for release later this month.

Maine has lost public school students every year since at least 1996, according to figures provided by the state. Between 1998 and 2007, Maine pre-kindergarten through grade 12 enrollments declined by 21,889 students to about 190,000, a 10 percent drop. The largest decrease — 4,140 students — occurred in 2006.

Jim Rier, director of finance and operations for the Department of Education, estimated that the new data would show Maine schools lost another 2,500 or more students since last October, but the real question is what will happen in years to come.

Rier and others predict the numbers will begin to rebound by 2012 or 2013, though they warned that making predictions more than three years into the future is unreliable.

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“The decline statewide is one thing we’re looking at,” he said. “We may debate where it bottoms out, why it increases and when, but of more importance is what [numbers] we will be releasing for local, individual school units.”

The Department of Education also tracks enrollments at private schools, but doesn’t try to project them for the future. The private school numbers, pre-K through grade 12, have fluctuated since 1996, peaking at 17,530 students in 2000. In 2007, there were 172 fewer private school students in Maine — 14,012 — than there were in 1996.

The number of home-schooled students K-12 rose from 3,394 in 1995 to 4,719 in 2005, according to the most recent Department of Education statistics.

The current study, being done by the Department of Education, the State Planning Office and the University of Southern Maine’s Center for Educational Policy, Applied Research and Evaluation, will include specific data for each of Maine’s municipalities.

When those municipalities need the most accurate information, though, many of them seek it out themselves. That’s because state projections can’t take into account variables that occur in each community.

“In my experience, the state’s numbers haven’t been absolutely correct,” said William Braun, superintendent of SAD 48 in the Newport area. Braun said the state has predicted a decrease in his district’s enrollment for years while, in reality, it has been gaining students. “This is the first year in 10 years that I’ve seen even a slight drop in enrollment,” said Braun.

With enrollment figures steering everything from budget decisions to the construction of new schools, making sure predictions about the future are accurate is crucial. That’s why even the Department of Education urges school systems and municipalities to accept its data with skepticism.

“This work should be a beginning for a community to make decisions,” said Rier. “There are things going on in some of these communities that these enrollment projections might not be able to quantify.”

Those factors could include a large employer moving in or out of the area, new housing that attracts young families, or, in the case of the Newport area, steady but isolated population growth.

“Part of it is we’re in central Maine and we’re in a nice location partway between Augusta and Bangor,” said Braun. “The travel corridor is here. We’ve got three lakes and a couple of ponds. When you drive around, you see housing starts everywhere, like in the middle of a cornfield or hayfield.”

Those are the type of locally specific variables that big-picture formulas can’t quantify, said state economist Michael LeVert of the State Planning Office.

“You have to be careful with the smaller towns, absolutely,” he said. “Those municipalities should use caution when using that data. Our process works best with bigger towns.”

To make enrollment projections, the state uses the “cohort survival model,” which is based on determining what percentage of kindergartners move on to first grade and so on.

“We use historical data,” LeVert said. “We had to pick a methodology that was robust enough for that to work, but it doesn’t take into account big events.”

Because enrollment projections are an integral part of planning school construction projects, the Department of Education urges communities to conduct their own studies.

That’s what happened in Hampden, which broke ground on a new Hampden Academy this week. Superintendent Rick Lyons, along with three other school administrators interviewed for this article, said his district turned to a South Portland firm called Planning Decisions Inc. in August 2007.“Their analysis is unbelievably accurate,” said Lyons. “They said we should be around 2,200 students right now and we’re at 2,205. It is pretty sophisticated.”

Rebecca Wandell is the senior project analyst at Planning Decisions. She estimates that in the past 10 years, she has produced approximately 180 enrollment projections for school departments, with most of them tied to school construction projects. She said the numbers her firm develops often vary significantly from the state’s projections.

“My experience has been that I don’t agree with [the state’s projections],” she said. “When we’re doing a projection, we’re very specific at the town level. When you’re looking at the overall picture, there’s bound to be some differences. We’re looking at a much smaller area.”

Wandell’s process involves studying birth rates in a given community and factoring in elements such as new housing developments and the general age of people who are moving into town.

“With school enrollments, there are little bubbles [where there are sudden increases or decreases],” she said. “It just happens that way. There are lots of reasons why.”

The Millinocket area, which has lost scores of paper mill jobs in recent years, is an example of that. Enrollments are on a steady decline, said Superintendent Sara Alberts, who has found the state’s enrollment projections to be unreliable for her district.“Some of the numbers were too high and some were too low, depending on the grade. That went for my numbers, too.” Asked why she thought future enrollments are so hard to predict in the Millinocket area, Alberts cited the loss of scores of jobs related to the closure of paper mills.

“People come and go around here for unpredictable reasons,” she said. “Enrollments are going down because the birth population is going down. On the other hand, housing is cheap and it’s a beautiful area, so there are people coming in, too. We’re shifting the type of people we have in this area and it’s very unpredictable.”Still, she said the state’s data are valuable as a baseline.

“I think they’re useful to have, but like anything, it’s just a statistic,” said Alberts. She and other superintendents said that despite their lack of local precision, state enrollment projections reveal trends going into the future. While that kind of information is not useful for determining the exact size a new school should be, it is of-ten used by school boards to write budgets and determine how many teachers and staff are needed from year to year.

“I often tell the board that you might be making this decision today, but it may lead to letting someone go in two years,” said Alberts. “I tell them maybe we can move forward without hiring someone and our class sizes will be slightly higher for a couple of years.”

Brewer Superintendent Daniel Lee agreed, and said the value of an enrollment projection increases when considered along with other data the state provides, such as property valuations, student-teacher ratios and the number of students who travel to another town for their education.

“You have to be thinking about where you’re going to be in a few years,” said Lee. “I look forward to seeing this data. It helps inform voters and communities about the sustainability of programs, particularly in this part of the state.”

Rier said the task of projecting statewide enrollments began under former Education Commissioner J. Duke Albanese in 2002. Another projection was done in 2004, but none have been done since. Rier said the department is committed to repeating the process every two years or so while encouraging communities to develop their own data.

“They need to probe and challenge the projections they get,” said Rier. “They know their current conditions better than we do. With these challenging economic times, it’s crucial to be looking beyond just one year. Our enrollment projections are just one component of that. There’s not any magic bullet here.”

Rier said the report is under final review and will be released in the next two or three weeks.