CUSD says it has a plan to address enrollment decline

Source: Chandler Unified School District. (Ken Sain/ Times Media Group)

For decades Chandler Unified School District had to manage huge growth as this part of the East Valley transformed from farms to suburbs. Now, it has a different challenge.

The state’s second-largest school district may have reached its apex and is now going to have to manage a slow decline in enrollment.

It may not be the second largest for long. Tucson Unified only needs about 100 students to overtake CUSD’s enrollment.

The CUSD Governing Board approved a revised budget for the current fiscal year May 10. The state allows districts to make revisions by May 15 once it gets data.

That data show CUSD had about 400 fewer students this year than the previous school year.

Heather Caviar, the district’s finance director, told the Governing Board that the drop of 393 students would have meant a revenue loss of $235,026 to this year’s budget.

But most of that loss was offset by a revenue gain to Group B Weight, which rewards with money for students in gifted programs who score highly on exams. The overall revenue loss was $12,113.

For now, the remainder of the revenue loss caused by overall enrollment decline is being offset by increases in federal and state grants and other revenue. Chief Financial Officer Lana Berry said the district does not rely on one-time funding for ongoing operations.

The district expects enrollment to continue to decline, and since most of the district’s operating cost comprises salaries and benefits, fewer employees may be on the horizon for CUSD in the future.

“We know that we are in a community that has a low birth rate,” Berry said.

“We are almost built out here, and we know that our homes have gone up in value and it’s harder for a brand-new family who’s starting out with little children to be able to afford homes. That has made an impact on our elementary school-aged kids.

“And then fourth, we know that there are a number of competitors, being charters and private schools, within our boundaries.”

A demographer who is currently working on a deeper picture of the problems Berry outlined has already told Tempe Union and Kyrene governing boards the same thing.

Rick Brammer of Applied Economics told both boards that the impact on enrollment caused by soaring housing costs is far greater than competition from charters and other districts. Low birth rates have only compounded the problem, he said.

The district expects an update from Brammer soon and Brammer told the Kyrene board last month he was finalizing his report.

Still, Berry says the district has been preparing for enrollment decline and has a plan.

She said the district hopes to manage downsizing as enrollment falls without layoffs.

“We try to make sure that we always are sticking to our staffing model,” Berry said.

Each year a number of teachers and staff retire, and the district traditionally hires replacements. Berry said one option in managing enrollment decline’s impact on operating costs would be hiring fewer people than the number who are retiring.

“We’re being financially transparent with what we’re doing as we move forward, but also that we are financially responsible for our school district based on staffing needs and we reduce those when the number of our students reduce.”

She said the district wants to stick to current teacher-pupil ratios.

“We know that we’re declining at a very small percentage, but ultimately, we reduce based off of that,” Berry said. “We still try to keep our class sizes at … 23 and a half to one.”

The district can’t do much about low birth rates or high home prices.

However, it is stepping up efforts to change the trajectory of competition with charter and private schools.

Last year CUSD ramped up its marketing to try and attract more students to public education.

“It’s too early to gauge results,” said Stephanie Ingersoll, the district’s executive director of marketing and community relations. “I will say that we’re only 40 kindergarteners short right now of where we were last year, and that’s due in part of having kindergarten readiness testing available.”

Other revisions in the 2022-23 budget involved inflation, including increased costs for substitute teachers, custodial supplies, student transportation for field trips and maintenance of the district’s vehicle fleet.

The district also revised funding for student mental and emotional health, which was increased because of contracts with the Hope Institute and Lighthouse Wellhealth.

Berry said the increase in marketing isn’t just about attracting new families to CUSD, but also convincing current families to keep their children in district schools.

Berry pointed to a number of programs that CUSD has added are more appealing to parents, including gifted academies, International Baccalaureate (IB) programs, dual language immersion schools, and other programs.

Ingersoll said the district is already seeing results of that in real time. Last year Andersen announced it would pursue being the district’s first IB program for elementary schools.

She said this year 64 students enrolled for kindergarten at Andersen, a large increase over previous years that officials attribute to the announcement.

Many of the federal funds the district received to address the learning gap caused by the COVID pandemic will expire after September 2024. Berry plans to present the 2023-2024 fiscal year budget to the Governing Board in June.

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