A 3.54% drop in enrollment in public district schools in the past year has led education advocates to look into where those students have gone and why as well as how that funding loss is impacting schools’ budgets.
“The loss of approximately 10% of our student population, combined with the 95% funding level for remote and hybrid learning, have had a significant, almost $5,000,000 impact upon our financial operations and overall picture this year,” said Dr. Manuel Valenzuela, superintendent of Sahuarita Unified School District.
“We are weathering this year’s storm largely through federal financial support. However, the uncertainty and magnitude of this budget situation create multiple contingencies and challenges for next year’s budget planning,” Dr. Valenzuela said.
Student enrollment in Arizona district schools dropped from 1,114,478 students in 2020 to 1,074,973 students in 2021, said Dr. Anabel Aportela, director of research for Arizona Association of School Business Officials and Arizona School Boards Association, who created the data maps in this story from enrollment data submitted by Arizona public schools to the Arizona Dept. of Education.
“The enrollment loss is mostly concentrated in the elementary grades, with a small overall loss of enrollment in high school,” Dr. Aportela said.
“For those districts that were losing enrollment before the pandemic, the pandemic may have accelerated the decline,” Dr. Aportela said. “For others, it has stopped or reversed their growth.”
Interactive Graphic: Dr. Anabel Aportela’s analysis of enrollment data submitted to Arizona Dept. of Education: Arizona Public Schools Student Enrollment from FY2020 to FY2021
Charter school enrollment grew by 11,696 students in the same time period, but that increase does not even come close to 30% of the 39,506 fewer students no longer enrolled in district schools.
The enrollment charts and maps include public information from district and charter schools as well as both of their online instruction systems, but “we don’t know how many have gone to private schools, because we don’t have private school data available to us,” Dr. Aportela said.
“The map is a way of visually showing where the greatest enrollment declines have occurred and whether those are statewide, which they are, or focused on a particular part of the state,” Dr. Aportela said.
The elementary and high school maps do not include charter school enrollment, because charter schools do not have a geographic school boundaries to map, Dr. Aportela said.
While district school student enrollment declined in every county, Arizona’s more rural and remote counties showed steeper losses. Coconino County had 7.6% fewer students enrolled, Yavapai had 7.5% less, Cochise saw a 7.1 decline, La Paz lost 6.3%, Navajo had 6% fewer students, Mohave showed 5.9% decline, Pinal dipped 5.6%, Graham slipped 5.5% lower, and Apache inched down 5%.
Counties with the least enrollment losses of district school students included Pima with 1.3%, Gila with 1.4%, Santa Cruz with 2.4%, Greenlee with 2.7%, Yuma with 3.2% and Maricopa with 3.4%.
How declining enrollment impacts schools’ budgets
Declining enrollment impacts the resources that schools have by reducing funding for every student lost, said Dr. Chuck Essigs, director of governmental relations for Arizona Association of School Business Officials.
“For this year in addition to the significant loss of students due to COVID-related issues the state is also reducing the funding for students who are enrolled in distance learning programs by 5%,” Dr. Essigs said.
The combination of these factors have resulted in large reductions in school budgets for the 2020-2021 school year, Dr. Essigs said.
“I have never seen reductions in school budgets like schools are experiencing this year,” Dr. Essigs said. “The loss of funding just due the 5% reduction factor for students in distance learning programs is over $250 million.”
Florence Unified School District had 14 percent fewer students enrolled in K-8 this year than last year and 8 percent less students enrolled in high school.
“Declining enrollment has led to Florence Unified School District having to reduce our budget by $9.5 million,” said Denice Erickson, chief financial officer for Florence Unified School District. “We have had to reduce spending and are looking at having to eliminate teaching full time equivalents.”
Student enrollment has fluctuated throughout the year and will likely continue to fluctuate through the end of the school year, Dr. Aportela said.
“Because schools are funded based on current year enrollment, schools are struggling to plan and budget to a moving target,” Dr. Aportela said.
“The Enrollment Stabilization Grant failed to provide full stability of funding, especially for those with the biggest enrollment losses, leaving schools with an additional challenge in an already challenging school year,” Dr. Aportela said.
While the Enrollment Stabilization Grant and the ESSER Grants have provided some relief to make up for the budget cuts imposed by the state, those programs are only temporary, Erickson said.
“The dilemma of uncertainty with enrollment and increased labor costs due to inflation, increased insurance and ASRS are concerning for beyond ESSER III,” Erickson said.
“State Lawmakers could stabilize school funding by ensuring that funding remains stable through the pandemic while numbers fluctuate rather than reducing budgets based on temporary numbers,” Erickson said.
Declining enrollment hits elementary schools hard
Part of the decrease in district elementary school students, could be due to parents of kindergartners deciding to wait until their child could take in-person classes, Dr. Aportela said.
“One possibility is that parents kept kindergartners home, decided to skip a year, and enroll in kindergarten next year,” Dr. Aportela said. “Another possibility is that people are homeschooling, and we just don’t know it.”
Interactive Map: State map of K-8 district enrollment changes:
Dr. Anabel Aportela’s analysis of enrollment data submitted to Arizona Dept. of Education
Parents may also be delaying enrolling pre-schoolers.
“We clearly see in the data that enrollment of preschool students with disabilities has declined over 20%,” Dr. Aportela said. “Obviously, this is of concern as early identification and intervention are particularly important to this group of students.”
The only group of pre-schoolers that the State of Arizona funds are pre-schoolers with disabilities, and that is why there is data on their enrollment, Dr. Aportela said.
“This is where statewide we lost the most students,” Dr. Aportela said.
One concern is that during the pandemic, parents of pre-schoolers with disabilities may not have been able to access services and specialists to assess their students’ needs as easily as before.
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Sahuarita Unified School District had 12% fewer students enroll in K-8 and 6% fewer students enroll in high school.
“The preliminary indication through surveys and outreach is that the majority of our student losses is directly tied to the uncertainties of the past year,” Dr. Valenzuela said. “We have historically been a growing community and many signs, including strong residential and commercial development, still show an overall positive trajectory for the future.”
“The challenge is budget planning and action that both acknowledge the reality of the current budget hole, while also striving to protect the programs and jobs of people that will be critical for long-term progress and success,” Dr. Valenzuela said.
“Our approach is one of balance, striving to manage risk, and also preserve our quality programs and employee team members’ jobs who deliver these programs. They are the key to our current and future excellence.”
Current efforts include intentionally seeking and capturing available budget lines where possible, such as supply dollars, purchased services, travel, and voluntary resignations that do not have to be replaced at this time, Dr. Valenzuela said.
“I am confident that this approach will help in this recovery process, with minimal long-term impact. That is the goal,” Dr. Valenzuela said. “However, continued budget shortfalls into the next year may require consideration of more drastic budget-balancing measures, such as furloughs.”
The impact on high schools
High schools around the state also experienced enrollment declines, but they were less severe than the drop in elementary enrollment, Dr. Aportela said.
Interactive Map: High school district enrollment change map
Dr. Anabel Aportela’s analysis of enrollment data submitted to Arizona Dept. of Education
In addition, many schools using distance learning to teach students, there was a significant increase in students enrolled in online instruction, Dr. Aportela said.
“The increase occurred in both districts and charter schools and it is not clear if these students are expected to return to in-person instruction at some point,” Dr. Aportela said.
Students who have been learning in a hybrid instructional model – part in-person and part distance learning – are expected to return to fully in-person learning, Dr. Aportela said.
“Our public schools are a public investment in the prosperity and overall quality of our state,” Dr. Valenzuela said. “We have made progress as a State and must continue to prioritize strong and steady funding of our schools.”
“Furthermore, in these dynamic and uncertain times, it is particularly important to keep funding predictable, consistent, and free of new regulatory requirements, to the greatest extent possible. For example, the Federal dollars have helped significantly to promote operational consistency this year,” Dr. Valenzuela said.
The budgetary impacts of the pandemic left financial gaps for many districts not offset under the current federal funding formula distribution of funds, Dr. Valenzuela said.
“The use of any flexible federal funds in addition to available state budget resources could help all districts receive a more balanced allocation,” Dr. Valenzuela said. “The purpose of these funds is to address our common focus on protecting our school programs from pandemic impacts and creating a bridge to the long-term recovery and success of our schools.”
“Given the current and foreseeable dynamic state of our schools, it would also be helpful to provide continued flexibility and full funding in regards to the predominant learning models being used in our state, traditional in-person, hybrid, and full online,” Dr. Valenzuela said.
Yet several Arizona school districts, mostly those with high schools, showed increased enrollment.
Saddle Mountain Unified School District’s elementary enrollment grew 7% and high school enrollment rose 10%.
“Saddle Mountain USD has seen about 8.5% growth in enrollment this year over FY20, which has helped us offset ADM losses for students in remote learning during the pandemic,” said Dr. Paul Tighe, superintendent. “We have seen steady growth over the past several years.”
“We are seeing people moving in from other states, mainly California, as well as people moving further west to get houses with more square footage at the same cost as houses closer to or in Phoenix,” Dr Tighe said.
“With some employers giving employees options to permanently work from home, many may be moving further from downtown Phoenix since they no longer need to commute, Dr. Tighe said. “Likewise, people from other states who can now work anywhere with Internet access may be choosing Arizona where the cost of living is lower.”
With increased enrollment, Saddle Mountain Unified has been able to increase its budget; however, increased enrollment has created the need to hire additional staff,” Dr. Tighe said.
“With continued growth expected, through the great support of our community we passed a bond election which includes funds to design and build another school and put additions on two other schools,” Dr. Tighe said.
The increased operational expenses and need for additional teachers and support staff will be funded through increased budget capacity from increased enrollment, Dr. Tighe said.
“This has also allowed us to pay higher hourly wages for staff as required by Proposition 206 (minimum wage increases) as well as increase health insurance, utility, fuel and other costs that have increased more than the inflationary increase provided by the Legislature,” Dr. Tighe said.
“Our increased enrollment has not allowed us to do more, but it has allowed us to maintain current programming and add staffing commensurate with increased student enrollment,” Dr. Tighe said.
“Declining enrollment plus funding loss from remote/online learning has created hardships for many districts across Arizona, so we feel very fortunate,” Dr. Tighe said.
Like all of society, schools have been disrupted in a major way these past 12 months, Dr. Valenzuela said.
“We must continue to share, talk, and work with intentionality to address our common goals and work together to find solutions,” Dr. Valenzuela said.
“There have been silver linings in this cloud, including the development of technology-based instruction, a focus on social-emotional learning, and community engagement and communication,” Dr. Valenzuela said.
“We must seize these opportunities and use them to address our challenges and make us even better for the long-term prosperity of our schools and communities,” Dr. Valenzuela said.