As students across the state prepare to return to the classroom from their summer break, school districts are faced with a vexing problem: declining enrollment and chronic absenteeism—both of which have been growing every year—are combining to take a bite out of annual revenues, forcing school officials to adjust their programs and services and look for ways to keep students coming to class.
According to Santa Cruz County Superintendent of Schools, Faris Sabbah, school districts have seen a 2% drop in enrollment every year for the past three years. Last year, that number reached 2.24%.
This has amounted to a loss of roughly 2,000 students countywide, Sabbah says.
“From my point of view that’s a significant drop,” he says. “The impact of these reductions is in the millions of dollars of funding that does not come into our schools.”
When a student is absent, or when they leave a school, it takes a bite out of the per-pupil amount that school districts receive under the state’s average daily attendance (ADA) formula.
This number varies based on grade level and other factors, but in general, districts count on roughly $20,000 per student every year. But state officials reduce this amount they give districts when students are absent.
From 2020-2022, daily attendance in Pajaro Valley Unified School District dropped from 16,657 to 14,664. Santa Cruz City Schools saw their numbers drop from 1,649 to 1,548 during that time, while Scotts Valley School District went from 2,353 to 2,039, Sabbah says.
The declines are part of a national trend that education officials were seeing before the COVID-19 pandemic, and which grew worse after it had receded. The same trend can be seen nationwide, particularly in large urban centers in California, New York and Michigan, according to the California Department of Education.
Students are still reeling from the year of distance-learning mandated under the pandemic, with many facing stress and other mental health challenges. This is impacting the number of students who are coming to school, Sabbah says.
According to Sabbah, the number of students who miss 10% or more of their school days—known as chronically absent—rose from 11% in 2020 to 27% last year.
The best thing families can do, he says, is to send their struggling student to school, where they will have the resources to help them.
“We want to bring awareness to parents and families about this, and we want to put some positive incentives for students to improve their attendance,” he said. “We want to ensure families that if they are struggling with getting their kids to go to school or the students are struggling with mental health challenges, the schools are the places where they are going to get those additional services and resources and support.”
Pajaro Valley Unified School District Director of Student Services Ivan Alcaraz said that a total of 42.6% of students were considered chronically absent in the 2021/22 school year. That number decreased to 32% last year, he said.
Still, PVUSD officials are trying to solve the problem.
The district recently applied for a grant that would help officials address the reasons for the absences.
The more insidious and hard-to-solve problem for school districts throughout California is declining enrollment, which is driven almost entirely by the high cost of living.
“It’s statewide, it’s countywide,” says Santa Cruz City Schools (SCCS) spokesman Sam Rolens. “It’s hard to raise kids in California, and school districts are feeling that crunch.”
The problem has prompted district officials to convene Vision 2030, a task force whose members will talk about the potential funding losses and how to adjust resources accordingly over the next decade.
One of these methods, aimed at boosting teacher retention, is the creation of 80 units of employee housing on Swift Street, which are being funded by Measures K and L, passed by voters in November.
“It’s a drop in the bucket, but it’s a way in which we’re trying to do our part to alleviate the housing stress across the whole district,” Rolens said.
PVUSD Chief Business Officer Clint Rucker has been sounding the alarm bells for several months, warning about the declining number of students and how it might affect the services and programs.
According to Rucker, the state is projecting an 8.2% reduction over the next decade, while in Santa Cruz County—which has some of the highest rental rates in the U.S.—that number is double.
In the last school year, PVUSD saw a $3.3 million loss, Rucker said. Next year that number will grow to an estimated $6 million, and to $9 million in 2024/25.
Rucker says that PVUSD strives to keep any reductions away from staff and the classroom, instead relying on attrition, or not filling certain positions when employees resign or retire.
This has already affected the district’s Visual and Performing Arts program, where a reduced number of art teachers will split their time between two schools.
“That impacts Pajaro Valley and the other schools in Santa Cruz County quite a bit more, because we’re losing more than the average, which impacts us more because we’re going to lose more funding,” he said.
The Santa Cruz County Office of Education has released a community survey to help officials with their efforts to address these issues.