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California's Enrollment Rollercoaster

EdSource Special Report

Bay Area schools see families leave cities, flock to suburbs

Above: Murray Elementary is one of several Dublin Unified schools to build new classrooms. The district's enrollment more than trippled over the last 20 years as the city rapidly grew.

Region shows little growth while some districts see shifts as families seek affordable housing.

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Thirty years ago, the Bay Area suburb of Dublin’s eastside was little more than miles of ranchland.

Today, it’s lined with new houses and apartments home to thousands of new-to-the area families. On a sunny afternoon, the city of 61,000’s playgrounds, cul-de-sacs and sports fields are buzzing with children, and the roads and strip mall parking lots are packed with minivans and electric cars.

The city’s building boom following the Great Recession resulted in the Dublin Unified School District tripling its number of students since 2000 – the only Bay Area district to do so while the region as a whole saw a 3.7% increase from 2000 and 2019. Along with the rest of the state, Bay Area enrollment plunged around 6.2% during the pandemic to 859,619 students – the lowest it’s been in more than 20 years.

Families flocked to the Tri-Valley city of Dublin for its new homes, new jobs, well-regarded schools and proximity to other job hubs in Silicon Valley, Oakland and San Francisco. The construction of thousands of new homes and apartments across five new developments allowed the 12,491-student district to build seven new schools, with two more on the way to bring the total to 15. The U.S. Census Bureau deemed Dublin the fastest-growing city in California between 2000 and 2019, and one of the 15 fastest-growing cities in the country.

“It’s almost like a new city,” said Ram Bora, whose boys are in kindergarten and first grade in Dublin Unified schools. Bora moved there from Los Angeles about five years ago and lives in one of the new eastside developments.

Ed Pruno, whose children are in kindergarten and fifth grade, said he left the East Bay about 10 years ago to “settle down” and start a family. He was attracted to Dublin by the positive reviews of its schools on the real estate listing websites as well as the city’s lower-home prices when compared with elsewhere in the region. Pruno said he moved around a lot as a child and sought out Dublin as a place where his children could finish all of their K-12 schooling.

“I wanted to give them what I didn’t have,” Pruno said.

Neither Pruno nor Bora said school overcrowding was an issue for their children. Superintendent Chris Funk said the enrollment increase has been “manageable,” though schools have had to move some classes into portables as school construction catches up.

Brentwood Union Elementary and Liberty Union High were the other two districts that saw the highest rates of enrollment growth since 2000. Both are located in the east Contra Costa County suburbs of Brentwood and Oakley. Much like Dublin, those cities quickly grew with the construction of new homes. They both doubled their enrollment but still remain under 10,000 students.

Growing suburbs with modest regional growth between 2000 and 2019 doesn’t tell the whole story, however. Districts that serve more low-income students in cities with less new construction lost thousands of students during that time, only exacerbating existing budget woes.

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Funk has seen what it’s like at both growing and declining districts. Before taking the superintendent position at Dublin Unified, he served in the same role in San Jose’s East Side Union High School District, which saw an 8% enrollment drop between 2000 and 2019.

Credit: Andrew Reed / EdSource

Dublin Superintendent Chris Funk talks to kindergartners during recess on the playground at Murray Elementary School, one of several schools in the district that’s been expanded as the city grows.

“I would much rather be at a growing district than a declining district,” Funk said. “We’re able to give our employees raises without having to lay people off, and expand our programming.”

Vallejo City Unified saw one of the sharpest enrollment drops in the Bay Area – losing 43.6% of its students between 2000 and 2019, and another 8.7% over the pandemic years of 2019 through 2021. That resulted in the district having to make $29 million in budget cuts, and to closing or consolidating six campuses since 2017, said district spokeswoman Celina Baguiao.

Vallejo City Unified started to see declining enrollment in the 1990s going into the 2000s and went into state receivership in 2004 after finding itself millions in debt. Then came the Great Recession. The working-class city of 120,000 people was one of the country’s cities hit hardest by the foreclosure crisis and declared bankruptcy in 2008.

The district still owes $9 million on the state’s $60 million loan, Baguiao said. Paying off the debt with an even tighter budget due to enrollment loss makes it harder to fund the things that could improve schools and draw more students.

“As we continue to pay the loan off, we have the extra financial burden to consider when expanding programs and hiring,” Baguiao said.

As Vallejo schools’ budgets tightened, charter schools drew students from district schools. According to state enrollment data, the city’s six independent charter schools grew by nearly 84% since 2014, adding a total of 1,099 students over that time while district enrollment shrank by 24.7%, or 3,378 students.

Charter school enrollment throughout the Bay Area more than doubled between 2009 and 2021, from 36,810 to 82,875.

The other two Bay Area districts with the highest rates of enrollment decrease over the past 20 years are Ravenswood City School District in East Palo Alto and Alum Rock Union Elementary in San Jose. Both districts have had to close schools in recent years to adjust to the funding loss.

Some of Vallejo City Unified’s high rate of enrollment loss can also be attributed to families leaving the Bay Area over the region’s high cost of living, Baguiao said.

“While the median-priced home is cheaper in Vallejo than in many of our neighboring cities, it still costs a lot of money to live in this area,” she said.

Vallejo City Unified and most other districts haven’t researched where departing families are moving to. West Contra Costa Unified, however, has managed to track where some families are going. In a report presented at Wednesday night’s school board meeting, the district found that slightly more than half of the 1,206 students that left the district last year went to a different district, while about 14% enrolled in charters, 13% enrolled outside the state and 8% enrolled in private schools. The students enrolled in neighboring Vallejo City Unified and Oakland Unified, as well as Antioch Unified farther east in Contra Costa County.

Of the 539 students who have already filed requests to transfer districts next year, 76% are going to neighboring Albany Unified and Berkeley Unified school districts. Others are going elsewhere in the Bay Area.

West Contra Costa Unified itself saw an enrollment drop of 18.5% between 2000 and 2019. Nearby Oakland Unified lost more than 30% of its enrollment during that period, while expenses increased. Oakland Unified’s decades-long budget woes prompted the district’s school board, in February, to approve a proposal to close, consolidate and merge 11 schools to adjust to the enrollment drop. The decision was met with hunger strikes and other ongoing protests and actions by members of the community and the local teachers union, the Oakland Education Association.

The Bay Area’s largest district, San Francisco Unified, saw a 10% enrollment drop between 2000 and 2019. The city had an influx of new residents during that time, but the number of households with children decreased. In a 2017 policy brief, County Supervisor Norman Yee chalked it up to a lack of affordable family housing, making the city less desirable than other Bay Area cities for incoming families.

Districts like those that serve higher percentages of students from low-income families could suffer another major financial hit next year, Funk pointed out. Fewer families are submitting household income forms to their districts, he said, because the forms are no longer required to access free school meals now that California is providing free meals to all students. That will inevitably reduce the amount of supplemental funds districts qualify for under the state’s Local Control Funding Formula.

“It’s a double whammy,” Funk said.

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  1. Chris Stampolis 5 months ago5 months ago

    These types of enrollment stories often do not mention that extended life span contribute significantly to out-migration from "cities" to "suburbs." While I consider it a blessing that most people today expect to live into their 90s or 100s, the planning reality is that home projections were made with life expectancies of 60s and 70s. Thus our society has an entire additional generation to house in comparison to 30 years ago and few families … Read More

    These types of enrollment stories often do not mention that extended life span contribute significantly to out-migration from “cities” to “suburbs.” While I consider it a blessing that most people today expect to live into their 90s or 100s, the planning reality is that home projections were made with life expectancies of 60s and 70s. Thus our society has an entire additional generation to house in comparison to 30 years ago and few families prefer to live multigenerationally. Please inquire with municipal planning staffers about this population issue when you publish follow-up stories. Bay Area houses will be much less likely to be “inherited” by children who have their own kids, when the housing need is by grandchildren who are rearing the decedent’s great-grandkids.

    Chris Stampolis
    Santa Clara, CA

    Replies

    • Jennifer Bestor 5 months ago5 months ago

      Your point with respect to home ownership vs. rental is a good one. The combination of Proposition 13 and a fixed (increasingly less useful) $250K/$500K capital gains exclusion created a financial imperative for many ageing homeowners to remain in overlarge homes. Many of us are curious to see whether Proposition 19 (2020) provides sufficient additional encouragement to shift older homeowners into right-sized housing, opening up family homes to young families. That said, … Read More

      Your point with respect to home ownership vs. rental is a good one. The combination of Proposition 13 and a fixed (increasingly less useful) $250K/$500K capital gains exclusion created a financial imperative for many ageing homeowners to remain in overlarge homes. Many of us are curious to see whether Proposition 19 (2020) provides sufficient additional encouragement to shift older homeowners into right-sized housing, opening up family homes to young families. That said, does the census data support your assertion that urban centers are not losing families to outlying suburbs?

      • Ann 5 months ago5 months ago

        Just curious how you conclude Proposition 13 keeps people in their houses?

  2. Jennifer Bestor 5 months ago5 months ago

    Bay Area school districts like San Francisco, Oakland and West Contra Costa Unified are not funded in line with local costs, as a matter of state policy. Despite over $1 billion a year of local property tax available to fund a regional cost supplement in the four most expensive counties in the state (including San Francisco and Santa Clara) -- and the fact that Bay Area residents pay twice the personal income tax contribution … Read More

    Bay Area school districts like San Francisco, Oakland and West Contra Costa Unified are not funded in line with local costs, as a matter of state policy. Despite over $1 billion a year of local property tax available to fund a regional cost supplement in the four most expensive counties in the state (including San Francisco and Santa Clara) — and the fact that Bay Area residents pay twice the personal income tax contribution per capita of, for example, Los Angeles residents — our middle- and working-class school districts are systemically starved. Families flee to the outer suburbs, where insularization allows them to take advantage of parent involvement, PTA and educational foundation donations, and local parcel taxes to try to make up the state-imposed shortfall.

    The only rational explanation is that local legislators and state political leaders see that it creates Bay Area votes for more taxes “for our schools” — at the apparently acceptable cost of a few hundred thousand young lives.

    Replies

    • Chris Stampolis 5 months ago5 months ago

      “Families” are not “fleeing” owned housing. Some families seek their own places, rather than continuing to rent or living multigenerationally with older grandparent owners. Families with kids who own housing in San Francisco or San Jose or any other part of Bay Area are not leaving. Why would they? They already own!