Far fewer students than projected have enrolled in Boston public schools this year, causing the School Department to potentially have opened more classrooms than necessary, according to a report presented to the School Committee Wednesday night.
Officials had predicted earlier this year that fall enrollment would increase in preschool through second grade by more than 1,000 students, bringing districtwide enrollment to its highest level in eight years.
But only 382 additional students actually enrolled in the lower grades. Making matters worse, enrollment in grades 6 and 12 unexpectedly tumbled by the hundreds.
Enrollment for preschool through grade 12 now stands at 56,735 students, slightly lower than last school year and significantly less than the 58,284 that was originally anticipated.
"We overprepared," Interim Superintendent John McDonough said in an interview before the meeting.
The School Department had opened an additional 89 classrooms to prepare for the anticipated increase. On average, it costs about $1,000 per student to outfit a new classroom with textbooks and other materials.
More than half the city's schools enrolled fewer than the number of expected students, meaning they could face budget cuts next year.
McDonough said enrollment could still increase as the year progresses, noting that the School Department must educate toddlers with disabilities as soon as they turn 3 years old. He also said the extra capacity should be useful next school year because officials expect enrollment to rise in the lower grades.
The School Department has struggled in the past few years to project enrollment accurately. Two years ago, the district did not have enough seats for 3- and 4-year-olds with disabilities, a violation of state and federal special education laws.
Last year, the schools projected a far higher increase in enrollment in the lower grades than materialized, with enrollment only going up slightly.
The current enrollment numbers were released as part of a budget presentation Wednesday.
The department is now anticipating a $10.3 million shortfall for this year, in part because of opening the additional classrooms.
Other factors contributing to the shortfall include growth in the number of students with disabilities requiring therapeutic services and increases in transportation costs for homeless students.
School officials expect to make up for the shortfall by adopting cost-saving measures such as not filling most vacancies except for classroom positions.
The School Committee expressed no concerns about the inaccurate enrollment projections. Members focused instead on other budget issues, such as implementing a new reading program.
"I'm very pleased by that bullet point," said member Mary Tamer, noting that many principals are dissatisfied with the current reading program.
Margaret McKenna, another member, asked whether the School Department switches programs too often, saying she could recall eight such moves.
"It's the fruit of the month," she said. "We find something that works, then we change it."