As classroom numbers shrink, America’s public schools face tough choices


Mission, Can.

A school system in suburban Kansas City is cutting more than 100 jobs, including kindergarten aides and library clerks. Oakland, Calif., is closing seven schools. Other districts across the country are merging classrooms, selling buildings and leaving teaching positions vacant to fill budget gaps.

Public school systems are starting to feel the pinch of enrollment losses related to the coronavirus pandemic.

Money for schools depends in part on student numbers, and emergency provisions in many states have allowed schools to maintain funding at pre-pandemic levels. But like the billions of dollars in federal aid that helped schools through the crisis, these measures weren’t meant to last forever.

In Olathe, Kansas, where the school system is cutting 140 jobs, Deputy Superintendent John Hutchison said the extra federal money was just delaying the inevitable.

Now it’s cutting millions of dollars from its budgets because enrollment, after peaking at more than 30,000 students in the fall of 2019, fell by about 900 in the pandemic’s first full school year. Less than 100 of these students returned.

“Where have these children gone? Mr. Hutchison asked at a recent town hall meeting. “Where are they? They haven’t come back this year. That’s what’s based on this further reduction in our funding.

Families opting for homeschooling, private schools and other options caused enrollment to drop sharply in the first full school year of the pandemic, and recovery has generally been slow.

In Houston, Texas’ largest district, enrollment has fallen by more than 22,000 to about 183,000 in fall 2021 and only about half of those students have returned. The district was protected from budget cuts in the first two years of the pandemic by what are called “exemption” provisions, but those protections are set to end. Superintendent Millard House has asked departments to cut $60 million from next year’s budget.

Among other states that have taken steps to protect school budgets, Delaware provided $9.3 million in one-time funding in the fiscal year that ended summer 2021 to school districts and schools. chartered to prevent layoffs due to declining enrollment, and North Carolina lawmakers moved to allow schools to use pre-pandemic attendance levels.

Other districts will make cuts in coming years, said Alex Spurrier, associate partner at Bellwether Education Partners, a think tank. The last federal aid must be spent by 2024.

“Once federal funding dries up, it will put many more districts in a much more difficult position if they kick in the road to make the adjustments they will need if they are going to serve smaller populations. students in the years to come,” he said.

Some districts struggled to explain the need for the cuts. Albuquerque Public Schools announced this spring that it expects a budget shortfall of about $25 million.

“This may sound crazy,” the district wrote in a blog post, acknowledging the influx of federal aid. But he explained that the decline in enrollment has accelerated amid the pandemic, with the student population falling to 73,000 from 85,000 in just six years. The district hasn’t released a cost-cutting plan, but legislative analysts say it will require layoffs and school closures.

Amid the upheaval, some states gained students. Florida was among the leaders, according to data tracking site Burbio. And workforces in some districts have benefited from new families, some of whom have moved to lower-cost areas as work has gone virtual.

In California, which this month announced enrollment fell by an additional 110,283 students, planned school closures in Oakland are sparking protests. The ACLU filed a lawsuit this month alleging they disproportionately affect black students and families.

To further complicate the situation, the labor market is tight and demands for teachers and staff are increasing.

At public schools in Minneapolis, where a nearly three-week teacher strike ended with a new contract, the district said it must make $27.1 million in budget cuts over the course of the next school year to pay for it. Federal relief money helped cover the $53.5 million price of the more lucrative contract for teachers and support staff for the current school year. Since the pandemic began, the district has also lost more than 4,000 students, along with the state funding they generate.

School officials in the city of Lawrence — home to the main campus of the University of Kansas — are creating tiered elementary classrooms, which will allow the district to get by with fewer teachers. It’s part of an effort to fill a budget shortfall caused by declining enrollment and to free up money for increases.

“You can’t cut nearly $7 million and not change the way you do business,” Lawrence Superintendent Anthony Lewis acknowledged in a meeting this month.

In Iowa, the Des Moines District canceled a conference, sold a building and is not replacing some retiring teachers as it cuts $9.4 million in spending for the upcoming school year. The cuts were necessary in part because enrollment in the district has dropped by 1,600 students since the pandemic began.

The district, which is the largest in the state with 31,000 students, predicts it will have to make even bigger cuts next year.

“I think it’s fair to say that federal assistance has helped offset some of the financial challenges,” said district spokesman Phil Roeder. “It got us through what was a historically bad moment in history. But it was a temporary stopgap, not a long-term solution for school districts.

This story was reported by the Associated Press. Cedar Attanasio reported from Santa Few, New Mexico. He is a member of the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places reporters in local newsrooms to report on underreported issues. The Associated Press’ reporting on issues of race and ethnicity is supported in part by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.


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