Enrollment in San Francisco public schools hit the skids this year, raising concerns that the district's funding will shrink as pandemic-related federal and state funding dries up.
At a budget meeting on Tuesday, district officials said that San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) lost 700 students during this school year, in addition to a decline of 1,000 recorded at the beginning of the year. Those students represent a drop of 3.2 percent year-over-year, and a notably larger reduction compared to prior years. By comparison, enrollment was roughly flat between 2018 and 2020, according to district data.
Perhaps more striking was a nearly 10 percent drop in kindergarten enrollment, a change that “will carry over into future years,” said Lauren Koehler, a placement director at SFUSD.
The decline was most pronounced among white students, said Koehler, with a 55 percent drop in enrollment in that cohort. The zip codes with the largest declines in applications were the Excelsior, the Sunset, Twin Peaks and Glen Park. For kindergarten, those zip codes were in the Mission and Inner Richmond.
“If we don’t bring our kids back and reach those original levels of enrollment, we do run the risk of seeing declining revenue for the 2022 and 2023 budgets,” said Meghan Wallace, chief financial officer at SFUSD. “We need to make sure we’re bringing students back, and monitoring enrollment trends.”
Prior to the pandemic, SFUSD had forecast growth in enrollment over the next decade, with analysts projecting 5,000 additional students by 2030.
However, a combination of general pandemic-related upheaval and deep frustration with SFUSD’s slow reopening appears to have driven a significant number of families out of the district, and perhaps in some cases out of San Francisco entirely. District officials said they hope to gather more data on housing, birth trends and private school enrollment to assess the likelihood of an enrollment recovery.
One parent, who left the district in March, wrote on Twitter that she moved her family 1,000 miles away to Denver so that her kindergartener could “access school, make friends & enjoy learning.”
Enrollment in SFUSD carries high stakes as the district stares down a budget deficit that is expected to widen in coming years.
For fiscal 2022, which ends in June of next year, the district expects a deficit of $100 million, which it described as “moderate.” That immediate deficit will likely be wiped out by one-time federal stimulus funds approved during the pandemic, but in subsequent years, the deficit will balloon to $122 million by 2024. The budget estimates do not account for any drop in enrollment.
“The moderate deficit is not moderate, that’s 10 percent of your budget,” said Elizabeth Kelly, a SFUSD parent who called into the meeting. “That’s pretty grim.”
Through a state system called the Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF), school district funding is determined by average daily attendance. The state opted to hold districts temporarily harmless for pandemic-related drops in enrollment, but will begin taking daily attendance into account in funding calculations in 2022.
For now, the district aims to boost enrollment by “rebuilding trust” in the system, according to Orla O’Keefe, head of policy and operations at SFUSD. The district plans to fully reopen schools in the fall, albeit with new start times and a possible continuation of mask requirements.
On June 8, the district will present its budget proposal and Local Control and Accountability Plan (LCAP), or a documentation of spending plans required by the state, to the Board of Education. The Board of Education will review the budget on June 22, and the plan must then be submitted to the California Board of Education by July 1.
Annie Gaus can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org