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There’s no deficit this year, but enrollment losses cause cutbacks

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

This year’s $1.86 billion School District budget will be balanced for a change – the first time in seven years that spending hasn’t exceeded revenues. District officials say they will be able to avoid red ink until at least 2008, because they still have $131 million from the funds the District borrowed two years ago to stay solvent.

But as the enrollment at many District schools continues to dwindle in the face of population shifts and growing competition from charter schools, the release of school budgets this year brought unhappy news for many schools.

Both the number of teachers allocated to schools and schools’ operating funds are awarded in direct proportion to each school’s projected enrollment. Losses in enrollment are causing shrinking school budgets and staff cuts at dozens of schools across the District.

An analysis of the School District’s student enrollment projections by the Notebook found that over three-fifths of the District’s schools were expecting some loss in enrollment next fall. In many cases, the anticipated dropoff is severe enough to force significant cuts in the operating budget.

At more than 30 District schools, including 23 elementary schools, the one-year enrollment drop in the fall is expected to exceed 10 percent. (This is in addition to several schools where a large decline is the result of being subdivided or losing a grade.)

There are 49 schools where the anticipated enrollment loss is between 5 and 10 percent.

The District’s student enrollment projection of 180,000 next fall, if it proves accurate, represents a one-year decrease of 7,000 students – almost 4 percent of the total student population.

"When you lose students, you lose money; it’s the law of gravity," said District CEO Paul Vallas. But he pointed to systemwide initiatives that he said would ease the pain.

"We try to minimize the impact by providing funding for things like class size reduction, curriculum and instruction, professional development – providing funding for things like our afterschool extended day program, or our summer school program," he added. "But if you lose 30 kids, you lose a teacher."

To minimize the effect of unexpected changes in enrollment, the District is for the second year in a row eliminating the traditional "leveling" process in the fall where teachers are reallocated based on actual enrollments.

Vallas noted that besides the impact of enrollment changes on schools’ operating budgets, there are other reasons for significant changes in school budgets this year. Many schools’ supplemental funding was impacted by a change in the Title I formula (see Activism around the city), and Title I funding also changed where there were shifts in the percentage of students under the poverty level.

In addition, there is a new formula for funding high incidence special education services. In the past, these dollars were allocated based on an expected rather than actual incidence rate.

Some of the major new spending initiatives in this budget include:

  • Implementation of the core curriculum in additional subject areas and grade levels – including high school science, social studies, math, and English – accompanied by new textbooks and professional development.
  • Continued development of Advanced Placement course offerings as well as the launching of International Baccalaureate programs at six high schools that completed a certification process this year.
  • The expansion of the Parent Assistance Desks – where parent volunteers serve as resource people to other parents and school visitors – to middle and high schools.
  • New high school options including a military academy expected to serve 150 students in the fall and an "Academy of Petrochemical Sciences."
  • Additional slots for 8,000 children in afterschool Beacon programs at 24 sites.
  • The allocation of $1 million to purchase musical instruments.

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