Student enrollment is plummeting at Tucson’s largest school district, costing millions of dollars in a budget that is already veering downward despite the windfall of new state funding this year.
When the Tucson Unified School District Governing Board set the district’s annual budget for the current school year, the district’s budget guru warned that student enrollment was likely to drop by 2 percent.
Governing Board members didn’t listen, adopting enrollment projections with a 1.6 percent drop — a loss of about $3.3 million.
Numbers provided by the Arizona Department of Education show the actual loss of students is likely to be much worse than projected.
“It’s not a good sign,” TUSD Superintendent Gabriel Trujillo said. “We are trending downward, we are trending to lose more than 1.6 percent.”
TUSD’s budget chief is now anticipating a drop of 3 to 3.2 percent, costing the district between $3 and $3.5 million that is not accounted for in the budget.
TUSD’s average daily membership has already dropped by 2.5 percent as of the 40th day of school, a “bellwether” day that school funding is based upon. That’s a far steeper drop than any other major school district in Pima County.
The school district has an average daily membership of 1,101 fewer students than at this time last year.
In terms of actual enrollment, the drop is even steeper. The district has 1,242 fewer students than roughly this time last year, a drop of 2.8 percent.
Per-pupil funding from the state is based on “weighted average daily membership” a complex formula that takes into account not only enrollment, but student grade level, whether students have a disability and other factors. The per-pupil funding for kindergartners is less than that of high school students, for example, and the district is paid more to educate students with disabilities .
In the past, schools were paid their per-pupil funding based upon the prior year’s enrollment, and the district wouldn’t have felt a hit from declining enrollment until next year.
But in 2015, lawmakers changed the law and required schools to be funded on current-year enrollment, meaning TUSD will have to scramble to make cuts this school year to balance its current budget.
In June, the Governing Board approved a $566 million budget that relied on rosy enrollment projections, assumed money that is in legal limbo will materialize and left just a fraction of a percent of its funding uncommitted and available for emergencies.
Then, immediately after approving the already-tight budget, the board went against the advice of its budget chief and voted to spend more, plunging the district more than $100,000 in the red before the fiscal year even began.
Trujillo has already convened a task force to address the problem.
“We’re doing a deep dive to look at the exact nature of our loss and the forces at play in terms of being bigger than people just being frustrated with TUSD and leaving,” he said. “Yes. We know some of that is going on, but we need to take a deep look at this.”
That means analyzing issues like losses to charter schools and neighboring districts, but also looking at mobility trends like whether young families are moving to the suburbs outside the school district and analyzing where the losses are coming from, both in terms of geography and grade level.
“That’s one of the roles of the enrollment task force, to see ‘Where are the kids going? Or, are we simply not bringing them in?’” he said. “We may have both problems.”
He said he expects the task force to present its findings to the Governing Board in late October, then start drafting solutions.
Already, the district is trying to find savings . To that end, Trujillo has implemented a district-level hiring freeze. It will not affect teachers or school-level positions, he said.
One of the most concerning trends is that the largest drops have come from the district’s elementary schools. As of the 40th day of school, TUSD elementary schools have lost 5.1 percent of their students since this time last year.
That’s problematic because when fewer students begin their school career at TUSD, fewer will enter middle and high school there.
There are some bright spots, with three schools growing by double-digit percentages.
Pueblo Gardens K-8 saw enrollment jump by 209 students, or about 56 percent. However, that jump is at least partially because it recently switched from a K-5 school to a K-8.
Borman K-8 grew by nearly 12 percent. And Vail Middle School grew by more than 10 percent.
Trujillo said the district is studying those schools to figure out why enrollment grew and what can be replicated at other schools.
Still, 19 schools fell by double-digit percentages.
The highest drops came from Roberts Naylor K-8, which lost 34 percent of its students; Booth Fickett K-8, which lost nearly 23 percent of its students; and Ochoa Elementary, which lost nearly 22 percent of its students since last year.
Trujillo said while the task force is still investigating why the drops were so high, there are some obvious issues.
Ochoa was recently demagnetized, and is suffering the residual effects, he said.
Booth-Fickett, which has had high-profile struggles with discipline and academics , saw the largest drop in terms of students, with nearly 200 students leaving .
“Unfortunately the last two or three years of Booth’s struggles have played out very publicly,” Trujillo said. “That also plays into the reputation of the school, which of course will cause parents to choose a different direction.”