The Kent School District might be receiving less money from the state with student enrollment down 1,320 students so far this year compared to the same period in 2o19-2020.
“I have some grave concerns regarding enrollment numbers,” said Kent School Board Director Michele Bettinger in a Facebook post about the Sept. 23 report to the board. “The district had anticipated 299 fewer students this year but the initial count indicates we had 1,320 fewer students at the five-day mark. This is extremely concerning to me from an educational standpoint. I worry about these ‘lost’ students. This also has strong potential to affect the budget, too. Remember in ‘17-‘18 the district stated it was an unanticipated decline in enrollment of about 500 students that led to the $7 million deficit.”
The district had 23,936 students during the first five days of this school year compared to 25,256 students during the first five days of 2019-2020, according to district documents.
No district staff members are talking specific budget deficits yet. But if the early enrollment numbers hold steady in October, the district would be looking at less money from the state, which pays a district for basic education based on how many students are enrolled.
“The results are not what I was expecting and that is a common thing apparently across the entire state and certainly in King and Pierce counties,” said Ben Rarick, district executive director of budget and finance, during his Sept. 23 report to the board about the impact of COVID-19 and remote learning on enrollment. “We are down 1,320 students through day five this year compared to last year.”
Rarick hopes the enrollment drop isn’t as high when the district reports its monthly numbers to the state Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI). He expects to have firmer numbers later in October. He said Kent’s neighboring districts of Federal Way, Auburn, Renton and Highline also have experienced enrollment drops.
“We have not finalized enrollment for September,” Rarick said in a Sept. 28 email when asked for the latest numbers. “We anticipate that our final September enrollment counts will be better than that (initial) number.”
The state funds districts based off the average of the once-a-month enrollment numbers reported each month over the full year, Rarick said. OSPI granted districts an extension for September reports this year due to COVID-19, but typically the numbers are due the first week of each month. Rarick said enrollment in most years holds pretty steady after the months of September and October.
“We anticipate receiving about $9,800 per student this year for the basic education allocation,” Rarick said in an email. “There are additional amounts for students with particular needs, as well as separate funding for school transportation, but those are case-by-case depending on the student.”
If the enrollment decline remains high, Rarick told the board to be prepared for potential budget cuts, use of the district’s fund balance or a combination of the two. He said counting on numbers to go back up if the pandemic fades and students are allowed to return to buildings could be another option.
“It’s why we have a fund balance, so we can get on top of it,” Rarick said about the district’s projected fund balance of $47 million approved by the board in August as part of the 2020-2021 budget, which was based on a projected slight enrollment drop of 299 students.
Director Maya Vengadasalam cautioned about reading too much into the numbers.
“I don’t want to dismiss the numbers, but it is the first five days,” she said at the board meeting. “We have to see a trend and analysis before making any rash moves, when we see stability in the numbers.”
Where have the students gone?
District staff continues to try to determine why the numbers are down.
“Staff is working hard to find families. …enrollments and withdrawals all have been more difficult because of the new process,” said Randy Heath, district executive director of student and family support services. “You (board members) saw a snapshot of the first days. Schools are making as many phone calls as they can and walking neighborhoods to find where students are.”
Heath said it could be technology issues that have kept students from participating, such as not picking up a laptop provided by the district or trouble with connecting to the internet.
The biggest decrease has been a loss of 326 kindergarten students, which could mean parents are waiting a year to enroll their children.
“What is noteworthy is what we are seeing in kindergarten,” Rarick said. “That is the grade we are seeing the largest drop and that is not entirely unexpected. We had heard anecdotally that if parents are making a judgment on sending their kid to kindergarten under the pandemic conditions, they may hold the student back.”
Other large losses included 255 fourth-grade students, 211 in the third grade, 176 in the fifth grade and 173 in the first grade. As far as increases, the number of seventh-grade students is up 202.
“Almost all of the enrollment loss (1,125) is at the elementary level,” Rarick said. “We have very little action at the middle (152 loss) and high school (41 loss) level. Of the top eight schools in terms of largest decline, 91 is the largest of any school, on day four. …We have seen movement since, so the list might look different as we go through the school year.”
Of the elementary schools, Crestwood reported the largest drop of 91 students followed by Scenic Hill, 72; Pine Tree, 70; Martin Sortun, 66; Sunrise, 66; Kent Valley Early Learning Center, 62; and Emerald Park, 60.
“We have made a lot of progress,” Heath said about tracking students.”The important dates coming up are in early October when we get a complete list from schools about where kids have gone. By the middle of October we will have a good idea where kids have gone. I am hearing from the buildings that numbers are getting smaller. Every year we have students we expect to show up and they don’t. …We have more this year.”