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Enrollment drops, staff shortages cause budget whiplash for top school districts

This piece was originally published by The 74

Nearly 40% of the nation’s largest school districts are facing staff reductions and school closures due to lost enrollment, according to a review of 100 large and urban districts by the Center on Reinventing Public Education.

At the same time, more than half of large districts are scrambling to incentivize staff to stay put amid a tight job market, often by pouring federal pandemic relief dollars into salary bonuses for current and new hires, or expanding programs to recruit and retain new teachers.

The contrasting trends underscore the pandemic’s wildly variable impact on large districts — and the importance of enrollment to a district’s livelihood, as each student brings a specific amount of public funding to a school. In some states, attendance also affects that per-pupil funding allotment.

Yet amid this focus on staff and per-pupil dollars, few districts reporting enrollment drops appear to be spending their relief dollars on efforts to re-enroll students, according to our review. Instead, more districts are spending their one-time funds on teacher recruitment and retention – which means staffing cuts may loom on the horizon when stimulus funds dry up.

For example, more than three-quarters of the districts offering bonuses didn’t report gaining new students between fall 2020 and fall 2021. With flat or declining enrollment, those districts may not be able to sustain the pay boosts over time.

Districts losing students consider staff cuts, school closures

School enrollment trends used to be easier to predict – and to factor into districts’ budget planning – because they played out over a longer span of time. But the pandemic changed all that.

We recently analyzed the budget and staffing decisions large districts made in response by reviewing their websites, board documents, media mentions, and COVID federal relief spending plans.

Of the 100 large and urban districts in our database, 38 referenced declining enrollment between the 2020-21 and the 2021-22 school years on their websites. That fits with the national pandemic trend, as public school enrollment fell by 3% in 2020-21 compared to the previous school year, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Ten large districts with significant enrollment declines are considering or actually closing schools. Three of those districts plan to consolidate more than nine schools each: El Paso Independent School District in Texas, Oakland Unified School District in California and St. Paul Public Schools in Minnesota.

Nearly one in five large districts reference staffing cuts for the 2022-23 school year, and the vast majority cite declining enrollment as the primary driver of those decisions.

Others are cutting staff for other reasons. The Houston Independent School District is planning to lay off 25 curriculum specialists due to a $60 million cut designed to centralize district administration costs, while Richmond Public Schools in Virginia will cut 40 full-time jobs as it closes its virtual academy.

Using pandemic dollars to lure back families – and funding

Some districts are smartly using their federal relief funds to re-engage families, in hopes of attracting new students, finding and re-enrolling those who left, or maintaining current students. Of the 10 districts that cited declining enrollment as a rationale for closing schools, six say they’re using pandemic funds to improve attendance and prevent further enrollment declines.

Broward County Public Schools, which identified 11,500 students who were “unaccounted for” during the 2020-2021 and 2021-2022 school years, will spend $4 million over the next two years to locate missing students and help them return to school. That work is being anchored by community partnerships.

Using pandemic dollars to stabilize the workforce

For other large districts, worker shortages and turnover have been bigger problems than enrollment fluctuations.

Due to widespread staff shortages in critical subject areas, 59 districts are offering bonuses to new and current employees, according to our analysis. Anchorage Public Schools is offering current employees a $500 bonus for every new hire they refer and an additional $500 if that person, once hired, completes the school year. That’s in addition to a $2,500 signing bonus for new employees.

After high rates of staff absences, Oklahoma City Public Schools is giving substitute teachers $40 per day pay boost. The district will also give stipends to staff members who return to campus early for training on addressing learning loss.

About half the country’s largest districts (49 of 100) are directing federal relief dollars toward teacher recruitment and development. For example, as a part of its teacher residency program, Buffalo Public Schools in New York is collaborating with the University of Buffalo to match diverse education-school students with a master district teacher for a one-year residency. The program includes a Puerto Rico recruitment initiative, which uses online platforms to recruit bilingual and bi-literate candidates to Buffalo to help close achievement gaps and accelerate the achievement of Latino students. The district also hosts an urban teacher academy, which invites local high school graduates to explore teacher assistant positions.

District leaders should balance using one-time funds to save teacher positions with investments to re-engage students

Despite robust teacher recruitment programs, staffing cuts may be on the horizon once stimulus funds dry up in 2024 if districts fail to reverse declining enrollment.

Districts should balance spending on new staff and bonuses with investments in re-engaging students and families. Together, those efforts could help mitigate declining enrollment – and declining revenue. Listening to families, incorporating their ideas, and making their children feel connected is not only good practice, but also a way to build community support and to balance short-term staffing needs with long-term teacher retention.

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