This is the third installment of Afton’s five-part blog series, “How Districts Can Afford High Quality Schools, Despite Enrollment Decline,” aimed at recognizing school district financial challenges associated with enrollment decline and offering some actionable recommendations for school districts facing enrollment loss, with or without charter schools.

As we outlined earlier in this blog series, Afton identified 8 ways that school districts can mitigate the effects of enrollment decline (and these were highlighted in CRPE’s “Better Together: Ensuring Quality District Schools in Times of Charter Growth and Declining Enrollment”):

  1. Uniform intra-district funding formula for district and charter schools
  2. Continued operational efficiencies, with an eye toward making costs more variable
  3. School closures and corresponding real estate transactions
  4. Redistricting / efficient enrollment planning
  5. End “last in first out” methods of reducing staff
  6. End unsustainable/unfunded salary commitments (step/lane/raise)
  7. End proliferation of long term fixed cost obligations (pension/OPEB)
  8. District commitment to decision making based on long term planning

In this part of our series, we will highlight remedies 3 & 4.

AFFORDING QUALITY SCHOOLS – REMEDIES 3 & 4: INFRASTRUCTURE CHANGES AND REDISTRICTING

School districts must plan and implement reductions in school infrastructure, staffing and operations to be fiscally responsible as new charter schools are authorized and enrollment is stagnant or declining.

3) School closures.  School closures, if done effectively, are among the most financially beneficial actions to take; however, they are also the most complex and controversial given the value of schools in their communities, the turmoil they cause to staff, and the potential negative impact on students when hastily executed.

Yet, keeping under-enrolled schools open creates costs in instructional quality. School-level costs are primarily semi-variable, and often act fixed when enrollment decline happens unevenly across schools and within grade levels.  These kinds of “hard to unfix” semi-variable costs include principals, assistant principals, instructional coaches, clerks, custodians.  Every school that is open needs at least one of this or that, and therefore the failure to close schools as enrollment declines drives up per-pupil spending requirements.

To the extent that turnaround schools (a charter operator takes over an existing school) are a compelling instructional option in a neighborhood, they carry with them a financial advantage to the school district in comparison to the authorization of traditional charter schools and corresponding school closure.  This option mitigates the financial impairment created by uneven enrollment migration across many grades of many schools because the district is losing students from only one school. As a result, the district eliminates that school’s full cost of instructional staffing, school administration, and other services and goods associated with educating those students. It is also able to eliminate many facility costs such as utilities, janitorial and repair services.

(4) Enrollment boundaries and redistricting. The financial impact of school closures is greatly enhanced by informed district-wide planning on enrollment.  Redistricting and enrollment boundary planning in anticipation of enrollment pattern changes, coupled with school closures, will lead to improved efficiency and therefore better use of dollars in schools.

Stay tuned for the fourth installment of this series!