SMSD enrollment drops 1,500 students below projections, prompting hit to state funding

A sign outside Belinder Elementary in Prairie Village on the first day of the 2020-21 school year. Photo via Principal Steve Yeoman's Twitter account.

Shawnee Mission Schools officials say the district has about 1,500 fewer students enrolled this fall than was projected at the start of the year, according to figures presented to the board of education at this month’s regular meeting.

It’s another piece of evidence suggesting the stress the COVID-19 pandemic is putting on the district, as new cases continue to rise sharply in Johnson County.

SMSD’s Chief Financial Officer Russell Knapp reported to the board last week that a state audit showed the district’s headcount this year to be 26,112, which is 1,504 less than the projected headcount of 27,616, an overall drop of 5.4%.

This fall’s final headcount figure is by far the lowest enrollment number for SMSD over the past five years, according to district records, which show the disrict’s final annual enrollment holding steady at slightly more than 27,500 going back to 2016-17.

The drop will contribute to an overall loss of at least $3.5 million in state and other funding this academic year, Knapp said.

State funding that Kansas public school districts receive is based, in part, on a weighted formula that apportions dollars per student based on a variety of factors, including whether students are eligible to receive free meals, get bilingual education services or are enrolled in career and vocational programs.

Knapp said the district’s state revenue shortfall will likely grow in coming months because funding based on special education student enrollment will be calculated in the spring, which Knapp anticipates will also drop.

“There’s probably a bit more bad news on the horizon,” he said.

SMSD not alone in enrollment decline

Shawnee Mission isn’t the only district to deal with enrollment declines this fall.

In fact, the Kansas Association of School Boards says, overall, there are roughly 17,000 fewer students statewide enrolled in Kansas public schools this year compared to last, a decline of 3.7%. In an online column posted earlier this month, KASB’s Associate Director Mark Tallman said the drop was “significant” but not a surprise, given that the pandemic has made many families nervous about sending their kids to school.

“It is not yet clear where those [unenrolled] students are currently attending. Some may have transferred to private schools or are being schooled at home,” Tallman wrote. “Some have transferred to public school virtual programs, which did increase in enrollment. Others may return to the same district after [enrollment is calculated.]”

Tallman noted that private schools in Kansas have not yet reported their enrollment, so it’s not yet possible to see if they’ve seen an accompanying rise in headcount. Non-accredited private schools and home schools do not have to report their enrollment to the state.

The enrollment declines, Tallman said, are projected to cost public school districts overall about $22 million this year.

Shawnee Mission’s enrollment drop appears to be the biggest — both in terms of raw numbers and as a percentage of overall enrollment — compared to its neighbors in Johnson County, though other districts are also reporting projected enrollment declines:

  • In USD 232 in De Soto, enrollment is down 389 students, or 5.1%, from last year. The biggest decline was in younger grades, with elementary school enrollment down 243 fewer students and pre-K enrollment down 74 students.
  • In Blue Valley, enrollment is nearly 3% below projections, at 21,608, nearly 650 students lower than last year. A district spokesperson says administrators plan to share more details about enrollment numbers at the December board of education meeting.
  • In Olathe Schools, enrollment this fall is off 3.5%, falling to 29,244, down from last year’s enrollment of 30,299.

Increasing strain on the system

The news of enrollment loss comes as SMSD struggles to maintain full operations in the face of a worsening pandemic in the Kansas City metro.

Growing shortages in certified staff and substitutes prompted Superintendent Mike Fulton last week to announce that all secondary students would return to remote learning after the Thanksgiving break on Monday, Nov. 30, and remain learning virtually through at least the end of the first semester on Jan. 22.

Other Johnson County districts — including USD 232, Blue Valley and Olathe — have also announced that secondary students would return to virtual learning after Thanksgiving.

“We’d been watching the numbers and it was getting decidedly worse,” Fulton told the SMSD board of education last week. “We had 50 unfilled positions [Monday], and that number is growing. That’s not sustainable.”

At the same time, teachers report growing anxiety and challenges inside classrooms and school buildings. They tell the Post that students, increasingly, are missing school, some after having shown symptoms of the disease or being put in quarantine following an exposure.  That tracks with the growing roll of students reported to be in isolation or quarantine on the district’s own COVID-19 dashboard, which, as of Friday, was at more than 820 students overall.

In an interview with the Post, three SMSD teachers all agreed that it’s hard to maintain social distancing in schools and keep rooms and surfaces clean consistently. But they also voiced reservations about younger students potentially returning to remote learning, if COVID-19 conditions keep getting worse in Johnson County.

“Personally, I don’t want to go back to remote,” Amanda Dirks, a first-grade teacher at Crestview Elementary, said. “Remote is hard for six-year-olds. I feel like we are getting a lot of work done [in person.] When I was doing remote it was frustrating. I had to keep my kids on mute while I taught because it was so loud, them talking or moving their laptops around. So, it felt like I was talking and teaching to a brick wall.”

Digging into the numbers

The loss of revenue based on SMSD’s enrollment drop is not as drastic as it could have been. That’s due to how districts’ state funding is calculated.

Districts get a base amount of money per student based on overall enrollment, plus additional funding based on weighted metrics intended to account for things like free meals and special education services.

To calculate their base — or unweighted — state aid, districts can use the higher of the previous two years’ enrollment. Knapp told the SMSD board last week that the district will use enrollment figures from 2018-2019 (when enrollment was 27,595) to calculate its base amount of aid this year. Therefore, he said, there is no anticipated loss of funding for that figure.

But SMSD is projected to lose at least $3.5 million from other revenue sources due to the enrollment decline and other pandemic-related issues, including:

  • $1.67 million from the state’s weighted enrollment calculation;
  • $550,000 from the local option budget, often referred to as districts’ supplemental operating budgets, which is also based on enrollment numbers;
  • $1.02 million from losses in facilities rentals, which have been limited because of pandemic-related restrictions and shutdowns;
  • $224,000 in lost pre-K tuition, following a drop in pre-school enrollment of 76 students.