Credit: Jessica Christian/San Francisco Chronicle/Polaris
California districts could face substantial revenue cuts next school year due to declining enrollment and attendance.

Despite this year’s return to in-person learning, districts throughout the state are seeing major declines in both enrollment and average daily attendance and fear the reductions could result in significant funding cuts next school year.

Without state intervention, many districts face substantial cuts in state funding and could be forced to make significant budget cuts in the 2022-23 school year due to a fall in enrollment and attendance to which funding is tied. Districts’ baseline funding depends on the number of students enrolled, minus the daily average number of absent students.

For the past two school years, districts were “held harmless” for the declines during the pandemic and were funded based on their enrollment and attendance figures for the pre-Covid 2019-20 school year. But that will no longer be the case unless the Legislature extends the “hold harmless” rule or takes other action.

Statewide, enrollment in K-12 public schools in California fell by almost 3%, or 160,000 students, in 2020-21, according to annual data released in April by the California Department of Education. On Oct. 6, districts filed their “census day enrollment” figures, which is the enrollment figure used in the state funding formula. Those figures likely won’t be made public until early next year.

West Contra Costa Unified, a district of about 26,000 students serving Richmond and surrounding areas, anticipates a loss of around $30 million in the 2022-23 school year barring no change in the funding formula, said Tony Wold, the district’s associate superintendent of business services. 

Los Angeles Unified, San Francisco Unified and others have also seen significant enrollment drops over the past two years.

For West Contra Costa, the reduction would mean a loss of about 10% of the district’s overall budget and could likely result in staff layoffs or force district officials to dip into reserve funds.

“Knowing that approximately 90% of most districts’ budget is spent on people, a 10% reduction would affect people,” Wold said.

The district has already endured years of budget hurdles. In early 2020, it projected a $48 million ongoing structural deficit for 2020-21 and cut about $30 million in ongoing expenditures from its 2020-21 budget in order to break even. The district did, however, receive record one-time state and federal funding this year, and was able to stave off cuts during the current school year thanks to a 5.5% cost-of-living adjustment from the state.

Between the start of the pandemic in March 2020 and the start of the 2020-21 school year, the district lost about 800 students, Wold said. Though the district had anticipated that many of them would come back or move elsewhere by the following year, the decline more than doubled to just under 2,000 students this school year.

The enrollment drop was spread among every grade level. Some of it was due to families not enrolling their children in kindergarten and transitional kindergarten. Also, fewer students transitioned into high school from middle school and elementary to middle school, Wold said. It’s unclear where they went instead of staying in the district, Wold said.

He also chalked up some enrollment loss to Covid anxiety, especially among families of students who are younger than 12 and not yet able to get a vaccine. In addition, the district typically has a steady stream of immigrant families, but border restrictions have led to fewer newcomer students, he said.

Besides the enrollment drop, confusion over independent study and strict guidance requiring students with any Covid symptoms to stay home has led to an uptick in absences, and average daily attendance has gone down by about 4%, he said.

West Contra Costa Unified is far from the only California district to experience such an enrollment drop. San Francisco Unified, which enrolled about 60,000 students in the 2018-19 school year, has lost about 3,500 students during the pandemic, the San Francisco Chronicle reported Tuesday. The district estimates a loss of about $35 million in state funding next year.

Los Angeles Unified, the largest school district in the state, lost more than 27,000 students — about 6% of its enrollment — since the 2020-21 school year, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Oakland Unified’s census-day enrollment count for the 2018-19 school year was 36,524. As of Oct. 5, the district projected enrollment of 34,378, Superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammell said at a school board meeting Wednesday. Sacramento City Unified Superintendent Jorge Aguilar has also expressed concern about the impact of his district’s enrollment loss on its ongoing structural deficit.

West Contra Costa Unified is looking to state leaders to figure out a way to avoid crippling budget cuts in the 2022-23 school year.

“While under the current statute we would have to cut, the reality is the state has more money and more money is supposed to come to education than before,” Wold said. “Rational minds should be able to come up with a solution, especially if it’s hitting every district.”

Wold recommends that average daily attendance be taken out of the equation for districts’ baseline state funding.

“Let’s say I have 10,000 students, and a 95% attendance rate. That means I’m getting funded for 9,500 students, but I still have to fund 10,000 Chromebooks, 10,000 textbooks and hire teachers and staff for 10,000 students,” Wold said.

He recommends average daily attendance be used just like supplemental concentration funding so that having a higher average daily attendance will result in a district getting a bonus — stimulating student attendance and providing support to get chronically absent students back in class — but not affect a district’s base funding.

Angelica Jongco, deputy managing attorney for Public Advocates, said the public interest law firm is hesitant to suggest doing away with average daily attendance permanently from the equation for districts’ baseline funding. Jongco said her fear would be taking away the accountability measure for districts and charter schools to address the ongoing issue of chronic absenteeism.

“Kids can only learn if they’re in school,” Jongco said. “We want to make sure districts are truly making all efforts possible to ensure students, especially the most vulnerable students, are getting to school every day.”

That being said, Public Advocates is looking to state lawmakers for short-term relief given the potential funding drop schools face in the 2022-23 school year. Even before the pandemic, Jongco said, districts were grappling with declining enrollment due to California’s surging housing prices, rapid gentrification and charter school growth. Since the state’s eviction moratorium expired this month, cities could see even more displacement of families with school-age children, she said. 

Though enrollment may not return to pre-Covid numbers, Wold expects there to be an uptick in enrollment once the pandemic has further subsided. Without the funding to have a workforce in place to serve those students, districts would be left scrambling again to find teachers and staff. The district was already unable to fill about 50 teaching positions this school year due to a statewide teacher shortage. Those positions are being filled with long-term substitute teachers and educators who were previously assigned to other duties, such as working as math or reading specialists.

The clock is ticking for legislative action on any change to the district funding formula. Districts will begin filing their interim budget reports on Dec. 15 and April 18, and they will adopt their budgets by June 30. Those reports must reflect the funding formulas currently in place. If the budget recommendation reflects a $30 million shortfall by March 15, layoff notices will have to be sent out.

“We need the time and the grace to be able to continue to support our students,” Wold said. “Not knowing if we’re going to have some sort of lifeline doesn’t serve us well.”

Editor’s Note: As a special project, EdSource is tracking developments in the West Contra Costa Unified School District as a way to illustrate some of the challenges facing other urban districts in California. West Contra Costa Unified includes Richmond, El Cerrito and several other East Bay communities.

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  1. Seth 3 weeks ago3 weeks ago

    It would seem if enrollment drops in a district that cuts would have been completed every year – this is normal. Why wait until the large shoe drops with years of enrollment drops and millions of dollars that now must be cut? Every year staffing and programs should be adjusted based on enrollment income. This is not difficult to understand and basic management principles.

  2. BGR 1 month ago1 month ago

    Please connect the dots of how, in reality, does bonus money get chronic truants back in school. I’d rather see the money spent to get kids to put down their effing phones for two seconds.

  3. Mel 1 month ago1 month ago

    Are they not considering that parents do not want to get their children covid shots? I assume this is a large factor in number drops.

  4. Former WCCUSD parent 1 month ago1 month ago

    These anti-vaxxers are spreading misinformation. Very small slice of actual WCCUSD families are pulling their kids due to mask mandates or vaccine mandates - plenty of small private schools in the area already were serving the anti-science people. Stop clogging up the comments about a real issue facing one of California's neediest school district with your baloney. As another data point that the article could have explored, WCCUSD is approving out of district transfers for some … Read More

    These anti-vaxxers are spreading misinformation. Very small slice of actual WCCUSD families are pulling their kids due to mask mandates or vaccine mandates – plenty of small private schools in the area already were serving the anti-science people. Stop clogging up the comments about a real issue facing one of California’s neediest school district with your baloney.

    As another data point that the article could have explored, WCCUSD is approving out of district transfers for some darn flimsy reasons, or so I have heard anecdotally. (Not ours – we have a legal approved transfer for accessing curriculum at a neighboring district for a subject not offered within WCCUSD) Seems like the district isn’t concerned with keeping kids once their parents have expressed an interest in leaving.

    Replies

    • BGR 1 month ago1 month ago

      Not all people leaving public schools are anti vaxxers or flat earth home schoolers. Many are moving or choosing the best education for their kids, which—don’t shoot the messenger—may not always be an under performing public school.

  5. Stephanie 1 month ago1 month ago

    The state doesn’t need to intervene. “Mandates” have consequences. We do not co-parent with the government. My husband and I are the only people who know what is best for our children. Public schools have become government indoctrination camps and parents are finished with the constant overreach.

  6. Meghan 1 month ago1 month ago

    Parents decide to homeschool their kids after the government holds education hostage by trying to dictate what we parents put in our child’s bodies. There fixed your headline

  7. AliceR. 1 month ago1 month ago

    They should go back to online learning last year, and they’ll get paid again, but nobody listens to the parents.

  8. John 1 month ago1 month ago

    I think the vaxx mandate will see a huge decrease in enrollment. Parents are furious and even those who took the jab to work at LAUSD have stated they will pull their own kids from LAUSD when it's required to step foot in campus. This is scary because some people estimate 30%-40% drop in LAUSD numbers and teachers who are vaccinated will lose their jobs because classrooms will be combined and people let go because … Read More

    I think the vaxx mandate will see a huge decrease in enrollment. Parents are furious and even those who took the jab to work at LAUSD have stated they will pull their own kids from LAUSD when it’s required to step foot in campus. This is scary because some people estimate 30%-40% drop in LAUSD numbers and teachers who are vaccinated will lose their jobs because classrooms will be combined and people let go because there aren’t enough students. I think vaxxed and non vaxxed people have to put their differences aside and if you want the vaccine take it, if not then don’t force it.

    The CDC says if you got chicken pox you don’t need the vaccine, yet they don’t say the same for Covid which many of our families/kids have gotten already and healed from.

  9. Mike 1 month ago1 month ago

    Hilarious. Wold says parents are hesitant to send their children to school because the Covid-19 vaccine is not yet approved and because there are less immigrant families now? The exact opposite is true. People are fed up with public school garbage. Now they are reaping what they sowed. I am strongly against the government funding them. Parents should get vouchers for private schools like Larry Elder advocates.

  10. Kristy 1 month ago1 month ago

    Good! Finally defunding the public school system! It’s what they asked for for the last 19 months.

  11. Never thought I'd be a homeschool parent 1 month ago1 month ago

    While my child is not in the school districts mentioned, they were in public school districts and I have removed them to homeschool one and private school two. Mask mandates, rigid recess regulations, upcoming vax mandates, and unregulated 10 day quarantines are the reasons I pulled mine out. The school knows my reasons, the districts should not be baffled as to why parents are pulling kids out in droves. It's comical to see them questioning … Read More

    While my child is not in the school districts mentioned, they were in public school districts and I have removed them to homeschool one and private school two. Mask mandates, rigid recess regulations, upcoming vax mandates, and unregulated 10 day quarantines are the reasons I pulled mine out. The school knows my reasons, the districts should not be baffled as to why parents are pulling kids out in droves. It’s comical to see them questioning why this is happening or where kids are going!

    Call any charter, private, or homeschool and they will tell you how many interest forms and calls they are receiving from frustrated parents in the public school system. Most have waitlists!! As some of the other comments have said, maybe the administration should be cut first and see how the situation improves with people on the front lines (teachers) helping to make decisions regarding education.

  12. Lisa 1 month ago1 month ago

    Imagine how many more students will be pulled out of the Covid19 vaccine is mandated! We saw the protests yesterday in California.

  13. Jessica 1 month ago1 month ago

    The vaccine mandate is going to exacerbate this problem. Lots more people will be pulling there kids from school. The vaccine mandate will result in students having to be home schooled or independent study and loss of teachers and staff that are not willing to get the vaccine. We’re going to lose great teachers, and children will suffer if they have to do independent study.

    The mandate needs to be removed. This mandate is hurting education and our children.

    Replies

    • John 1 month ago1 month ago

      Even vaxxed teachers will lose their jobs when student enrollment drops and they start to combine 2 or even 3 classes because some classrooms will only have 3-10 students and why pay for 3 teachers to have 10 kids each when they can pay for 1 to have 30 kids. That included vaxxed supervision and teacher assistant positions as they no longer need as many to supervise the kids when 30% of the school’s population drops.

  14. Ryan 1 month ago1 month ago

    Pretty sure they missed the real reason. It’s because of the mandates. And our governor. When will people realize that we aren’t stupid. And will start reporting the truth!?

  15. Jennifer Shaw 1 month ago1 month ago

    If there are fewer students in your classrooms, how are you expecting to receive the same amount of taxpayer dollars? Do the math.

  16. Suza 1 month ago1 month ago

    Cut the administration, start there. California students rate 48th in the nation. Stop CRT and get back to the basics. Reading , writing, and arithmetic

  17. Michele Dugar 1 month ago1 month ago

    Parents are pulling their children out due to SexxxEd, CRT, masks, and vaccine mandates. My 3 grandchildren are now homeschooled.

  18. Chrissy 1 month ago1 month ago

    Makes sense. California is destroying public school.

    Replies

    • Former WCCUSD parent 1 month ago1 month ago

      Sadly have to agree with this even if we might not think for the same reasons. Underfunded/under-resourced public schools are the core reason why we pulled our two students from WCCUSD, although both spouse and I are products of CA public schools from preschool through grad school.

  19. Former WCCUSD Teacher 1 month ago1 month ago

    Unfortunately WCCUSD is losing so many students because students and teachers are at the bottom of their priority. Notice how staff will have to be cut, but not the multiple number of administrators. It is always the teachers and students in that district that face the most cuts, never the admin.

    Replies

    • Former WCCUSD Employee 1 month ago1 month ago

      That's not true at all. In the last round of budget cuts (2019-20), WCCUSD cut 25% of its non-represented administrators (principals and assistant principals are represented), from 44 down to 33. WCCUSD also gave its teachers a record-setting raise just two years earlier, moving them from among the worst-paid teachers in the county to (for a short period of time) among the top three highest paid teachers in in the county while reducing class sizes. … Read More

      That’s not true at all. In the last round of budget cuts (2019-20), WCCUSD cut 25% of its non-represented administrators (principals and assistant principals are represented), from 44 down to 33. WCCUSD also gave its teachers a record-setting raise just two years earlier, moving them from among the worst-paid teachers in the county to (for a short period of time) among the top three highest paid teachers in in the county while reducing class sizes.

      It’s easy to bring out the tired trope of too many highly-paid administrators. That’s not the case in WCCUSD. The combination of unsustainable (but much deserved) raises, unsustainable (but important) class size reductions and chronic underfunding (getting better but still nowhere near what we should be spending) of public education in the state has a far greater impact on the budget than the alleged overspending on administration.

  20. k M 1 month ago1 month ago

    You miss the reason people are leaving the schools: masks, forced vax, segregation, discrimination, and CRT. It’s going to get worse, and you better buckle up. Parents are done with the man who thinks he is King making decisions for his people.

  21. Tim Shelton 1 month ago1 month ago

    Wait, you have fewer students but need the same amount of money? Sure. That makes sense. It should be obvious that fewer parents are willing to deal with the nonsense and are homeschooling, moving to private schools, or going to neighboring districts.

    Replies

    • Dan Plonsey 1 month ago1 month ago

      Many costs are fixed and don’t depend on the number of students. Furthermore, WCCUSD has huge class sizes, much larger than in neighboring Berkeley where I teach, so anyone who cares about reducing inequity in education for kids in this low-income district should be in favor of no cuts to staff.

  22. kenneth Sorenson 1 month ago1 month ago

    Expect it to get worse; requiring Covid vaccines for kids to attend school will drive out hundreds of thousands of families. Covid poses an incredibly miniscule risk to kids, this strictly political requirement is asinine…

  23. Former WCCUSD parent 1 month ago1 month ago

    Totally agree with Wold that ADA shouldn't be a factor; that's ridiculous. That said, we are a family that moved both our students out of WCCUSD public schools starting in school year 2020-21, following the chaotic end to the 2020 school year and fears about additional budget cuts decimating the few good things about the district (like band, which is super strong at a couple secondary schools). We moved one of our middle schoolers to … Read More

    Totally agree with Wold that ADA shouldn’t be a factor; that’s ridiculous. That said, we are a family that moved both our students out of WCCUSD public schools starting in school year 2020-21, following the chaotic end to the 2020 school year and fears about additional budget cuts decimating the few good things about the district (like band, which is super strong at a couple secondary schools). We moved one of our middle schoolers to private school and the other one to a neighboring district public school. Both alternate situations have been so much more enriching and engaging than our WCCUSD option(s), where there’s so many challenges with students coming to school unprepared to learn. We feel guilty in some ways but ultimately so relieved that our kids are in learning environments where classroom management is a non-issue.