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Budgets Take Shape Amid Questions On How Many NC Students Will Return To Public Schools

As school districts across North Carolina prepare their budgets, tens of millions of public dollars are riding on whether — and where — the students who left public schools during the pandemic return.

Public school enrollment projections are the foundation for allocating teacher positions and doling out a big chunk of the state budget. Normally it’s pretty straightforward.

But just over a year ago the pandemic closed schools. In August, most districts reopened in remote mode, and most saw a steep drop in enrollment. The state’s school business director, Alexis Schauss, says that makes it more important — and more difficult — to project what’s coming in August.

"What we do know is that there will be an increase in average daily membership next year," Schauss said at a recent state Board of Education meeting. "The question is what number will return and what grades will they return in."

Before the pandemic, most school districts were seeing enrollment inch down. Schauss says that’s because of declining birth rates and growing numbers of families opting for charter schools or home schooling. This year, North Carolina school districts on average saw an unusually steep enrollment drop of 5% — and kindergarten enrollment dropped 15%.

Many school officials believe the lack of in-person classes led families to seek alternatives, and they hope students return as in-person classes resume. Ideally, Schauss says, state budget planners would have a good idea of how many students are coming back to each district in August and how that will break down by grade level.

That makes a difference for budgeting. Schauss noted that the state pays for one teacher for every 18 kindergarten students, but only one for every 29 high school seniors.

But so far, Schauss says, firm projections are proving elusive.

CMS Lottery Drew Fewer Students

CMS is working on its budget, too. Associate Superintendent Akeshia Craven-Howell says it’s hard to tell how many students are coming back.

The magnet lottery for the coming school year drew about 8,654 applications. That’s 16% lower than the 2020 lottery, which finished before the pandemic hit and drew 10,335. Craven-Howell says that’s understandable.

"You know, open houses and information night were all held remotely," she said. "And so families haven’t been able to get into schools, get into classrooms and experience the programs the way that they have in the past."

For instance, CMS is opening two new language immersion magnet schools in August to take the place of Waddell Language Academy in south Charlotte. The new school in south Charlotte, which is next to Waddell, drew almost 1,300 students. But the new Huntersville school, which was created to offer north Mecklenburg residents a language magnet closer to home, has only about 350 students in the same size building.

"I think overall what we are seeing is just families unsure of what their choices will be for next year," Craven-Howell said.

Hoping For Pre-Enrollment

In the current year, Craven-Howell says, CMS lost some students who were enrolled last year, but the biggest hit came from anticipated new students who just never materialized. That was most pronounced in kindergarten and sixth grade. New students who plan to attend next year can simply show up in August, but Craven-Howell says CMS is urging parents to enroll them now.

"Around this time in the spring is when we typically begin to do teacher hiring fairs. And so now is really the time," she said. "And so we’re having to make some assumptions about how many students we can bring back to the district and what that looks like in terms of staffing."

This week CMS elementary and K-8 schools start a Plan A schedule with students attending in person four days a week — up from two days. The school board plans to vote Tuesday on bringing middle and high schools back four days a week too. Craven-Howell says she hopes that encourages pre-enrollment for August.

Superintendent Earnest Winston will present a budget plan to the CMS board in April. The district will hold a public engagement session about the budget on Thursday.

Money from the state — as well as the district’s request for county money — will be based partly on projected enrollment. For now, that leaves planners trying to predict the future of an education landscape that became unfamiliar territory about a year ago.

Copyright 2021 WFAE. To see more, visit WFAE.

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