Many San Diego Unified Schools Are Nowhere Near Full - Voice of San Diego

Education UNVEILING THE UNSEEN

Many San Diego Unified Schools Are Nowhere Near Full

State data shows 94 schools reported enrollment below 80 percent capacity, and a dozen schools were at 50 percent capacity or less. But San Diego Unified isn’t the only district grappling with declining student populations.

Memorial Preparatory for Scholars and Athletes in Logan Heights was the third-most under-enrolled school in San Diego Unified during the 2017-2018 school year. / Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle

School is back in session, and San Diego Unified School District anticipates educating about 1,200 fewer K-12 students than last year.

Student enrollment has declined steadily at the region’s largest public school district in recent years. The district taught less than 103,000 students last year – 7,700 fewer than just five years ago and 14,700 fewer than 10 years ago, according to district records.

And there is no sign the slide will slow anytime soon.

Budget documents show San Diego Unified officials anticipate a loss of about 1,500 more students next year, and again the year after, when enrollment may dip below 99,000 students.

That’s bad news for district leaders who are routinely left searching for millions of dollars in spending cuts. Since the state funds public schools on a per pupil basis, lost students means lost money – about $13,000 per student annually for San Diego Unified, according to state data.

That means this year’s anticipated enrollment drop alone could end up costing the district $15.6 million.

San Diego Unified’s latest $1.4 billion operating budget counts on $58.3 million in ongoing cuts in 2020-21 and another $24.5 million the following year. It is still unclear where that money will come from.

“Any talk about budget revisions is premature at this point,” Greg Ottinger, the district’s chief financial officer, said in an email. Ottinger said this year is funded and possible solutions for next year will come in December. State funding may also change before next year, he said.

“Cutting classroom spending today to reduce a projected shortfall in the future would mean depriving our students of every available dollar,” Ottinger said.

San Diego Unified’s school board president, Sharon Whitehurst-Payne, referred inquiries to district staff.

“We staff to specific class sizes, and if there are fewer students we hire fewer new teachers as others retire,” the school board’s vice president, John Lee Evans, said in an email. “The budget partially re-balances by losing revenue for students and not hiring teachers for the students who are not there.”

If there are 1,200 fewer students to educate this year, a proportional reduction would mean losing roughly 60 teachers, since the district’s average pupil to teacher ratio is 20-to-1.

Rookie teachers get paid $46,000 at San Diego Unified, so 60 less would amount to $2.76 million in salary savings. That would still leave a nearly $13 million deficit that would need to be cut from somewhere else.

But staffing hasn’t always dropped proportionally with enrollment, district data has shown.

Just a couple years ago, while facing a $124 million shortfall, San Diego Unified officials issued wide-sweeping layoff notices, and later retirement incentives, to “right-size” the district’s workforce, which had actually increased amid enrollment declines.

The district is also moving ahead with plans for a new school in Mission Valley, despite a lack of students there.

“The district believes strongly in creating livable, walkable communities with quality neighborhood schools in the center of local life,” wrote Maureen Magee, a district spokeswoman, in an email. “The new school Civita school will be exactly this type of community foundation.”

Magee said there are 230 students who currently live in the area and have to travel away from Mission Valley to attend school. And that number may double in time as more residential development occurs.

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The district’s steady enrollment decline is a far cry from the student boom seen in the 1990s, although even growth during that decade came up short of projections.

Demographers hired by San Diego Unified in the 1980s expected student enrollment to reach 156,000 students by 2000, according to a Los Angeles Times article from 1986.

Instead, district enrollment peaked at less than 135,000 in traditional district schools in 2000, and totaled less than 142,000 counting charter schools, which manage their own operations and finances, district records show.

Certain parts of town are being hit by enrollment losses harder than others.

Voice of San Diego requested school capacity data from the district and compared it to school enrollment numbers reported to the state for 2017-18.

The result: 94 schools reported enrollment below 80 percent capacity, and a dozen schools were at 50 percent capacity or less. Three of the most severely under-enrolled schools were in Clairemont Mesa, and three were in the Skyline-Paradise Hills area.

  • The most severely under-enrolled school was the K-12 Whittier School, which serves 53 students with special needs in Clairemont and was at 27 percent capacity. In 1999, the school had 969 students, state data shows.
  • The most under-enrolled traditional school was Alcott Elementary, occupying just 34 percent of its Clairemont Mesa campus with a mere 195 students. Back in 1997, the school had 575 students, state data shows.
  • The third-most under-enrolled San Diego Unified school overall was Memorial Preparatory for Scholars and Athletes, a Logan Heights middle school serving just 416 students on a campus with capacity for 1,146. Memorial had almost 1,900 students in 2003, according to state numbers. The school has long struggled to attract and retain students, and has been rebranded and re-envisioned more than once over the years, even converting to a charter school and back again. The campus is now in the midst of a rebuild to convert it to a K-12 campus, pushing out a separate charter school that had been sharing the space. (State law requires school districts to share unused space with charter schools.)
  • Four other district schools operated at less than 44 percent capacity: Kimbrough Elementary in Grant Hill, Lafayette Elementary in Clairemont, Montgomery Middle School in Linda Vista and Wilson Middle School in City Heights.

Wilson’s principal, Dave Downey, said gentrification is having an impact.

“Many of our families are simply being priced out of the newer neighborhoods within the Mid-City corridor,” Downey wrote in an email to VOSD. Still, the middle school has made gains in recent years – rising from less than 600 students in 2011 to 709 students today. “Over the last nine years we have made a concerted effort to market and bring additional students to the Wilson/Hoover STEAM Pathway,” Downey wrote.

That has included annual visits to nearby fifth grade classrooms, and a partnership with Price Philanthropy, which helps fund student programs at the Birch Aquarium, Ocean Discovery Institute, SALK Institute, the College Avenue Compact, School in the Park, as well as a social worker and liaisons who reach out to students in need at home, he said.

Spare campus buildings at Wilson are being used to partially house districtwide programs, like the TRACE alternative school for young adults with special needs, as well as a small population of medically and physically challenged students who receive sensory education spread across four classrooms, Downey said.

The extra campus space also allows each of Wilson’s three counselors and two home liaisons to have their own classrooms, Downey said. Two other classrooms are currently being used by the district’s construction team working on a rebuild that will reduce Wilson’s capacity to less than 900 students.

The new school buildings should open sometime this school year, Downey said.

The extra space on the Alcott campus is being used for early education. Principal Michelle Riley said in an email about 263 preschool and pre-K children are attending programs at Alcott this year.

Find your San Diego Unified school’s capacity numbers here:

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San Diego Unified isn’t the only district grappling with declining student populations. Statewide K-12 enrollment is also expected to decline in the coming years.

State Department of Finance officials project California will lose roughly 250,000 students between 2019 and 2028, according to state data released in January.

For San Diego County, state officials expect K-12 enrollment to increase over the next couple years, peaking at 511,631 in 2021, before declining for several years, the state data shows.

It isn’t just one factor that’s causing local students to disappear, according to regional school officials.

“San Diego’s declining enrollment has been due to a combination of factors such as a decrease in the number of births, decreasing immigration rates, migration out of San Diego and high housing prices,” a 2011 report by the San Diego County Office of Education said. “The areas hardest hit by declining enrollment have been in the central, east and north inland regions.”

The state’s fiscal crisis management team recently recommended both Oceanside Unified and Vista Unified in North County consider consolidating schools due to declining enrollment, saying they are “incurring costs to maintain more facilities and school sites than needed to adequately serve its students.”

In Vista, three schools reported enrollment below 50 percent capacity, and 21 out of 26 schools reported enrollments less than 80 percent capacity.

“Consider closing or consolidating one or more schools or sharing administrative staff between school sites,” advised the FCMAT team in a July 22 report to Vista.

As for Oceanside, the state fiscal team found 15 out of 24 campuses had enrollment below 80 percent capacity, and three had less than 50 percent capacity, according to a May 17 report.

“Due to the declining enrollment, the district has a surplus of facilities,” the crisis team wrote.

Representatives for both districts said they are reviewing the recommendations, and each recently closed a school: Olive Elementary in Vista, and Ocean Shores continuation high school in Oceanside. Oceanside is now exploring a sale, lease or joint use for the former Ocean Shores property, Oceanside spokesman Matthew Jennings said.

In San Diego Unified, there is little talk of closing any K-12 schools, which has never been a popular choice.

No K-12 schools have been closed under the current superintendent, and no closures are planned, said Magee, the district spokeswoman.

“Schools are important community centers for many neighborhoods,” Magee wrote, adding that keeping under-enrolled schools open furthers the district’s “commitment to protect the planet.”

“The district estimates trips to school account for 451 Metric tons of carbon in the environment … Walkable, livable communities are important to protect both the quality of life for San Diego residents and as a crucial strategy to reduce pollution.”

The district has also achieved enrollment turnarounds before.

In 2008, Crown Point Elementary had just 150 students, who occupied just 38 percent of the Pacific Beach campus, and was targeted for closure.

But that same year, the school began focusing on music and enrollment surged to 400 by 2016. Last school year, enrollment totaled 313 students, reaching 82 percent capacity.

Evans, the school board vice president, said small school closures were previously considered when the district budget was in crisis, but the potential savings was too little to make it worth it.

“The small schools had very limited support staff. The teachers would typically move where the students move, so no savings there. There could be savings for the elimination of the principal, but even that limited savings might be slightly offset by an increase in the salary of a receiving principal with a larger student body,” Evans wrote in an email.

But Evans said school consolidation is on the table “if it resulted in a better academic program for all of the students,” after looking at all factors, including safety for students that may have to cross busy streets to attend a school further away.

Evans said the district is also working to determine the optimal size of different types of schools to meet academic needs.

“Overall, it is a very complex issue and is not as simple as opening and closing Starbucks based on the customer flow,” he said.

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