California schools risk a “colossal” loss of dollars if enrollments drop

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As they await the release of Governor Gavin Newsom’s proposed 2022-23 state budget, school district officials across California fear losing millions of dollars at one time, causing staff cuts at a time when students need more attention than ever.

After two years of failing to penalize school districts for declining enrollment during the pandemic, school districts are poised for a sudden drop in revenue for the next year as their funding recalibrates to match current enrollment since it closed of California’s schools has collapsed due to COVID-19.

“I’ve never seen a drop in enrollments all at once,” said Andy Johnsen, superintendent at San Marcos Unified in northern San Diego County. “The pandemic changed everything.”

In 2020, state lawmakers decided to allow districts to use their pre-school enrollment and attendance numbers, 2019-20, to calculate their funding for the next two school years. From autumn 2022, however, the amount of funding will be determined by this year’s enrollment and attendance.

“Just to put it in perspective, we lost a few hundred students every year before the pandemic,” said Harold Sullins, assistant principal for the San Bernardino City Unified School District. “Last year we lost 2,000 students. That corresponds to a decrease of about eight years. “

Great potential losses are imminent

Without government support, San Bernardino City Unified could lose $ 27 million in funding due to the drop in enrollments, a sizable portion of the district’s $ 971 million budget. Counties across the state have taken similar blows.

The effects of such cuts may differ from one district to another. It could mean laying off employees or cutting back on language and arts programs. Ultimately, this means that services that many students need will disappear, especially in the years to come, as they try to recover from the challenges of virtual learning.

In 2018-19, California schools across the state lost approximately 23,000 students. Between the 2019-20 and 2020-21 school years, California public school enrollments fell nearly seven-fold, with more than 160,000 dropouts.

To calculate what it pays each district each year, the state uses average daily attendance, so not only is enrollment important, but students are in class every day. A new bill, tabled Monday by State Sen. Anthony Portantino, a Democrat from the San Fernando Valley, aims to change that policy and fund schools based on enrollment, bringing the nationwide $ 3 billion Would bring in dollars for schools.

Before COVID-19, low birth rates and migration patterns caused public school enrollments to decline annually. During the pandemic, kindergarten enrollments fell by about 61,000 students, making up a large part of the overall decline.

“Kindergarten isn’t compulsory,” said Sullins. “In our earlier grades, many of our parents chose to withhold their students.”

When the physical classrooms reopened in the fall of 2021, strict rules on quarantine and independent learning also affected attendance. Districts that were unable to offer independent study to students in quarantine had to count those students as absent, thereby losing their attendance-based funding. Sullins said the policy had “a huge impact” on visitor numbers.

The district leaders said a sudden drop in funding would penalize the districts for both the decline in enrollment caused by the pandemic and for failing to meet inappropriate independent study requirements.

“The public doesn’t understand,” said Lisa Gonzales, chief business officer at Mt. Diablo Unified. “We will all face colossal funding cuts next year.”

Gonzales said her 30,000-student Northern California District could lose $ 24 million if the state does nothing.

Gonzales declined to say exactly where the district would make cuts, but said she expected to issue discharge notices. She said that when school districts make cuts, the first thing they do is figure out what must be legally compliant, such as having a teacher in each classroom and transportation for students with disabilities. Then they think about how to increase the class size and delete certain positions.

“You don’t need a librarian or an advisor,” she said. “Are they important and valuable? Absolutely.”

Could they really have known that there would be so many students who wouldn’t come? I do not think so.

– Jonathan Kaplan, Senior Policy Analyst at California Budget & Policy Center

What’s next

Administrators interviewed by CalMatters have raised several possible solutions, but they fall into two general categories – trying to exploit the fact that the state is expecting a large budget surplus.

First, the state could increase overall funding for the schools by adjusting the formula that determines how much money the counties receive from the state. The formula consists of “base” funding for all students and additional “add-on” and “concentration” grants for districts serving English learners, foster children, and students entitled to free or discounted meals.

“In an ideal world, increasing the base would be beneficial,” said Gonzales. “It could reverse the presence problem we have.”

A second option: the state could gradually reduce the funds in order to give the districts more time for the dismantling.

A governor’s spokesman declined to comment on the content of the upcoming draft budget. The state parliament is aware of the impending financial crisis in the districts.

Mike Fine, the state’s chief executive officer of the state’s Fiscal Crisis and Management Assistance Team, spoke at a hearing before the State Assembly’s Education Funding Subcommittee on Nov. 30 and recommended that districts be temporarily funded based on their average attendance of three years .

Fine said that prior to the pandemic, about 60% of the counties were in decline. Last year, all but one of the state’s 58 counties saw a decline.

The governor and lawmaker have tried to help districts recover from the pandemic. The 2021-22 state budget resulted in historic investments in K-12 education. A large part of this flowed into ongoing financing, e.g. B. to send more money to districts with a higher concentration of students at risk.

Jonathan Kaplan, a senior policy analyst at the California Budget & Policy Center, said these pledges signal that lawmakers in Sacramento are aware of how hard some communities have been hit by COVID-19.

“The governor and the legislature deserve credit,” Kaplan said. “The increase in the concentration grant confirmed that there is a legitimate need out there. Students in these communities need support. “

Even so, both the state and local counties underestimated how low enrollment and attendance rates would plummet this year.

“Could you really have known that so many students were not coming?” Said Kaplan. “Could you really know how much hardship there would be? I do not think so.”

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