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As under-enrollment trend continues, AISD searches for ways to keep kids and money in district

Thursday, August 2, 2018 by Samantha Zern

The Austin Independent School District’s enrollment numbers are predicted to continue their downward trend in the coming school year, affecting long-term district decisions regarding budgeting and other financial policy. According to the most recent demographic study, the district will lose an estimated 4,266 students by 2026.

This downward trend influences every part of district funding decisions. It’s estimated that since 2013, the peak of the district’s enrollment, AISD has lost nearly $115 million to under-enrollment. According to Travis Zander, director of budget and planning for AISD, this year’s $1.4 billion budget, which is $11.9 million less than the previous year’s, was crafted with the anticipated student losses in mind.

“As long as we are continuing to lose students, this is going to continue to happen,” Zander said. “The district can’t artificially prop up in perpetuity the same funding levels we had in 2012 and 2013, at the peak of our student enrollment. We don’t get funded at that. So as we continue to see those declines in student enrollments, there’s going to have to be some difficult decisions that are going to have to be made because of us not having the same resources.”

Hardest hit by under-enrollment are AISD’s districts 1 and 2, both located in East Austin, where high schools such as Travis, Eastside Memorial, Reagan and Crockett could see population decreases of over 20 percent, and as high as 40 percent for Travis, over the next 10 years.

“We’re still losing enrollment, and when we look at the percentage of loss, it’s certain schools in the urban core,” said AISD Superintendent Paul Cruz. “It’s fast.”

These schools also have larger economically disadvantaged populations than other schools in the city. Zander said that in particular, the district’s population of economically disadvantaged students is dropping, meaning schools in high-need areas are seeing less benefits from federal funding sources.

“Our economic disadvantaged percentage is going down and our overall enrollment is going down, so we lost about $2 million in federal funding,” Zander said. “That federal funding is mainly allocated out to the campuses, so the campuses also saw losses in their Title I allocations. So there were a lot of reductions last year, primarily driven around this declining student population.”

A combination of low birth rates, lack of affordable housing, and competition from private and charter schools are the main drivers of decreasing student populations. As property values continue to rise in the city, many families are choosing to move to less-expensive surrounding districts. State funding formulas, however, consider the district “property wealthy” due to the property values within the district boundaries, and even as student populations shrink, the district will continue to pay more into state education recapture each year.

“This year, we’re projected to lose $670 million, last year we sent $535 million,” Cruz said. “We’re still an urban district, we’re still around 55 percent poverty, we still have 23,000 students who are English language learners, we transport kids to get around the city because transportation is hard.”

In 2016, after a lengthy legal battle between more than two-thirds of Texas school districts and the state, the Texas Supreme Court upheld the state’s education funding system, saying that while it is constitutional, it is in need of transformational reform. It is now up to the legislators to decide if and how to change the funding system. Fixing the recapture system, which is based on formulas created in the early 1990s, is a main legislative priority of AISD and its board.

“I think that funding formula changes at the state level, that’ll all be based upon the political wheel of the Legislature in terms of deriving enough revenue to fully fund some of those changes and finance a law,” Nicole Conley Johnson, AISD’s chief financial officer, said. “I think the progress that will be made there is too soon to tell, it’s really based upon a revenue decision. Outside of that, it really is the district having to think about how it’s going to support this educational mission with the declining revenue that it’s seeing.”

Meanwhile, the district is looking at other ways to maximize funding. Because the formulas take into account average daily attendance, ensuring that students are in school every day is one way the district can get the most out of the state funding. According to Conley Johnson, the district loses about $45 a day per student for missed attendance. Last year, the district had a 94.9 percent daily average attendance rate. Through programs like Every Day Counts and the Aim for A+ Attendance campaign, this district is hoping to bring that number to over 95 percent. Conley Johnson said that for every percentage increase in average daily attendance, the district could bring in between $7 million and $8 million more each year.

A change to out-of-district policy also helped alleviate some of the loss last year, and Cruz hopes it will continue to keep students in AISD schools, even as they move outside of district boundaries. The change allows students outside of district boundaries to transfer into AISD schools that are not over-enrolled without paying tuition. The children of AISD employees are able to transfer into any school in the district, regardless of how full it is. Last year, this policy netted 1,417 students district-wide.

“Many families choose that option because many families work here, but they don’t live here, and then with traffic and it’s just getting bigger and bigger and harder to get around, we thought, wouldn’t it be great if a parent could enroll their child in a school that’s closest to their work and it’s of their choosing,” Cruz said.

The district is also working with the Austin Board of Realtors to promote the policy and showcase the variety of programming in the district. This variety of specialty programming, Cruz said, will hopefully help keep students in AISD and draw more from outside the district’s boundaries.

“Maybe 10 or 12 years ago, our main options were Kealing magnet, (the Liberal Arts and Science Academy) and Fulmore magnet,” Cruz said. “And now we have single genders, we have fine arts academies, we have early college high schools, we have Career Launch, we have the Winn Montessori, we have pre-K 3 – we just expanded the offerings to meet the needs of our parents. There are so many folks moving into the Austin area and Central Texas, we want to give them opportunities too.”

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