A school system in suburban Kansas City is cutting more than 100 jobs, including kindergarten assistants and librarians. Oakland, California is closing seven schools. Other districts across the country are merging classrooms, selling buildings, and vacating apprenticeships to fill budget gaps.
Public school systems are beginning to feel the enrollment losses associated with the coronavirus pandemic.
Funding for schools is determined in part by the number of students, and in many states emergency regulations have allowed schools to maintain funding at pre-pandemic levels. But like the billions of dollars in federal aid that have helped schools weather the crisis, these measures shouldn’t last forever.
In Olathe, Kansas, where the school system is cutting 140 jobs, Assistant Superintendent John Hutchison said the extra federal money only delayed the inevitable.
Now it’s cutting millions of dollars from its budgets because enrollment, which peaked in the fall of 2019 with more than 30,000 students, fell by about 900 in the first full school year of the pandemic. Fewer than 100 of those students have returned.
“Where have the children gone?” Mr. Hutchison asked at a recent public meeting. “Where are they? They didn’t come back this year. It’s because of this additional cut in our funding.”
Families turning to homeschooling, private schools, and other options saw enrollment fall sharply in the first full school year of the pandemic, and generally recovery has been slow.
In Houston, the largest district in Texas, enrollment fell by more than 22,000 to about 183,000 in the fall of 2021, and only about half of those students have returned. The district was protected from cuts for the first two years of the pandemic by so-called “hold-out” provisions, but these protections are expected to end. Superintendent Millard House has asked departments to cut $60 million from next year’s budget.
Along with other states taking action to protect school budgets, Delaware provided $9.3 million in one-time funding for school districts and charter schools in the fiscal year ended summer 2021 to prevent layoffs due to declining enrollment, and the North Carolina legislature decided to allow schools to use pre-pandemic attendance counts.
More districts will make cuts in the coming years, said Alex Spurrier, an associate partner at Bellwether Education Partners, a think tank. The last federal aid must be spent by 2024.
“Once federal funding ends, many more districts will be put in a much more difficult position as they kick the can out onto the streets to make the adjustments they will need when serving fewer student populations in the years to come,” he said.
Some districts struggle to explain the need for cuts. Albuquerque Public Schools announced this spring that they expect to run a budget deficit of about $25 million.
“This may sound crazy,” the district wrote in a blog post, acknowledging the influx of federal aid. However, it explained that the decline in enrollment has accelerated amid the pandemic, with the student population falling from 85,000 to 73,000 in just six years. The district hasn’t released a cost-cutting plan, but legislation analysts say it will require layoffs and school closures.
Amid the upheaval, some states have recruited students. Florida was among the top performers, according to data tracking site Burbio. And some districts’ workforces have benefited from new families, including some who moved to less expensive areas when work went virtual.
In California, which this month announced that enrollment had dropped by another 110,283 students, Oakland’s planned school closures are sparking protests. The ACLU filed a complaint this month alleging that it disproportionately affects black students and families.
The situation is further complicated by a tight labor market and calls for increases in teaching and staffing levels.
At Minneapolis Public Schools, where a nearly three-week teachers’ strike ended with a new contract, the district said it would have to make $27.1 million in budget cuts next school year to pay for it. Federal aid funds helped cover the $53.5 million price tag for the more lucrative teacher and support staff contract for the current school year. Since the pandemic began, the district has also lost more than 4,000 students, along with the government funds they generate.
School officials in the city of Lawrence — home to the University of Kansas’ main campus — are creating multi-grade elementary school classes that allow the district to make do with fewer teachers. It’s part of an effort to close a budget gap caused by falling enrollment and free up money for pay increases.
“You can’t cut anywhere near $7 million and change the way you do business,” Lawrence Superintendent Anthony Lewis admitted at a meeting this month.
In Iowa, the District of Des Moines canceled a conference, sold a building and failed to replace some retired teachers as it cut spending by $9.4 million for the upcoming school year. The cuts were necessary in part because the district’s enrollment has fallen by 1,600 students since the pandemic began.
The district, which is the country’s largest with 31,000 students, expects to make even deeper cuts next year.
“I think it’s fair to say that federal aid has helped offset some of the financial challenges,” said Phil Roeder, a spokesman for the district. “It helped us get through a historically bad moment in history. But it was a temporary workaround, 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 corps member of the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to cover undercover topics. The Associated Press’s coverage of race and ethnicity issues is supported in part by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.