Whirled class

Sacramento city schools keep losing students and funding as teacher-contract negotiations kick off

Gov. Jerry Brown’s budget promises an increase in funding for the Sacramento City Unified School District, but district officials are predicting more austerity. Not coincidentally, contract negotiations with the district’s teachers are about to get started.

The district wants to cut retiree health benefits and build reserves. Teachers and parents want smaller class sizes. So does Brown: His school-finance-reform plan, the Local Control Funding Formula, requires districts to reduce class sizes to 24 students. Right now, Sac city schools have 31 students per class in the lower grades, 32 in kindergarten.

District leaders say they can’t afford smaller classes. “There is no feasible way for the district to get to 24 to 1 without going bankrupt,” said Ken Forrest, the district’s chief business officer.

But can the district really afford not to reduce class sizes?

It’s losing money because it is losing students. It’s losing students, in part, to suburban districts and to charter schools, where class sizes are smaller.

If you look at Forrest’s budget projections, the district stands to gain under LCFF—which favors districts with high numbers of poor, minority and English-learner students.

But those gains are largely erased by declining funding due to losses in enrollment. The dwindling student body cost the district $5 million this year, and is predicted to cost another $7 million next year. Enrollment has dropped by about 10 percent in the last 10 years.

Some of that is just changing demographics and a bad economy. The kids who weren’t born because the economy tanked in 2008 would be starting kindergarten about now. Many parents moved out of the area for better job prospects.

But some wounds are self-inflicted. In 2002-2003, charter schools accounted for less than 2 percent of enrollment. Last year, charters had 10.5 percent of district enrollment and are expected to reach 11.3 percent this school year.

That hurts the district’s bottom line, because the per-pupil funding from the state goes with the student to the charter. This is not meant to open the whole debate about charter schools—some are better than others. (And the usual disclosure here: Bites is married to a SCUSD teacher and is generally pro-public education.)

But there’s no debating that charters impact the district budget. While overall enrollment has dipped 10 percent in the last decade, once charter schools are figured in, it’s about an 18 percent drop in the same period.

Last year’s school-closure debacle hurt enrollment as well. The district has been averaging about 10 percent loss of students to other districts and charter schools each year. (The total drop in enrollment each year is smaller, because new students are coming into the district as others leave.) At the seven schools targeted for closure last year, that number was slightly higher, with about 11 percent of students leaving the district. Part of the problem was that Fruit Ridge Elementary lost many of its students to the Spanish-immersion charter school that was started on its campus and then moved to another site.

Anyway, after the school closures last summer, 14 percent of the students at those schools left the district’s rolls. As a result, the district lost about a half-million dollars more than it otherwise would have. By comparison, the district touted about $1.5 million in savings from closing the schools.

To make matters worse, the enrollment trend may be accelerating. District officials are now predicting that enrollment will drop by another 1,200 students by next school year. Last year, the decline was 800 students, the year before, it was a little more than 300.

It has to be underlined that the big, scary drop in enrollment is being projected just as the district is sitting down to haggle with its unions. Then again, would it be so surprising for enrollment to take a dive after this period of closing neighborhood schools, steadily increasing charter enrollment and increasing class sizes?

Loss of enrollment leads to budget cuts. Budget cuts leads to larger class sizes. This may drive down enrollment more because, after all, charter schools and nearby suburban districts have smaller class sizes.

And though the research on the effectiveness of smaller class sizes is mixed, we do know that parents want them, and they vote with their feet.

More information is needed. The district has hired an outside consultant, SCI Consulting Group, to dig deeper into the enrollment woes. But even the guy who says we can’t afford to reduce class sizes acknowledges they may be part of the problem.

“We’re in competition. We’re losing 1,200 students a year. We’re not losing them all because of the birthrate,” said Forest.