Shawnee Mission school board candidates on the issues: Student enrollment

Kindergartener colors

Student enrollment in the Shawnee Mission School District fell by about 1,500 last year during the pandemic. Numbers have rebounded this year but are still below pre-pandemic levels. File image.

In August, we asked our readers about the issues you wanted to hear the candidates running for Shawnee Mission school board address. Based on your feedback, we developed a five-item questionnaire touching on the most important issues to patrons of the district.

Each day this week, we will publish the candidates’ responses to one of five questions. Today, we are publishing candidates’ responses to the following question:

The district fell short on its projected enrollment in 2020 and 2021 — specifically in its youngest grades, including kindergarten. These drops will likely impact the amount of state funding the district receives in the future and thereby influence future budgets you will be asked to vote on. How can the district prepare for these potential budget impacts? What are your ideas on how to increase student enrollment?

Below are the answers the Post received from the candidates on this issue:

At-Large Area

Heather Ousley (incumbent)

Funding from the state is based on a two-year review, with the higher enrollment number of the two years used for calculating the number of students the district is funded for. In 2020, due to COVID concerns, enrollment dropped, as it did for districts across the state. While we projected recapturing those students this year, our projections fell short, by roughly 500 students. The District’s 26,500 student enrollment for this year, while higher than last year, is less than our enrollment prior to COVID. The data reveals the decrease is concentrated in the youngest grades, in kindergarten and first grade. There have been a lot of anecdotal stories from families who chose to learn from home last year, and who were still concerned about enrolling their younger children prior to a vaccine being available this year, and they chose to find alternate at-home learning models for this year. I have also heard from families that say they would have enrolled in the district sooner, but the late vote to retain masking for this year impacted their choice to stay at a private school that had committed to masking earlier.

Enrollment fluctuations are likely best addressed through hiring efforts in the spring, with hiring efforts reflecting the need for the size of the current student population that we serve. The district is committed to and has begun the process of lowering secondary educators’ class schedule from six sections out of seven to five sections out of seven. What may be more difficult, in light of the lowered enrollment projections, is finding a way to budget for the positions currently funded by ESSER [federal pandemic relief] dollars. For example, this money is paying for additional social workers, counselors, math teachers and additional elementary teachers who were hired to lower class size. The ESSER federal covid relief dollars made these positions possible while we work to catch students up and assist them in transitioning back into full in-person learning. When those ESSER dollars end next year, it will be very difficult to adopt the budget in a way to retain those positions. This is something we are all thinking about right now, and how we can go about doing this, while also increasing classified pay from a base of $13.00 an hour to $15.00 an hour to be competitive with other local districts is going to be tricky.

It may be that with another year — and when a vaccine is available to elementary students — that our families with younger students will feel comfortable returning to in-person learning or to switch back from a private school. It is also possible that some families may choose to come back once their children reach a “milestone” year, such as when transitioning to middle school or high school.

However, another option available to the district is to once again allow students from other districts to transfer into Shawnee Mission to participate in some of the unique program opportunities we have here. Prior to the block grant funding scheme [enacted by the state], SMSD allowed students from outside the district to transfer into SMSD if they paid a transfer fee to do so. When the block grant funding went into effect, due to certain circumstances at the time, SMSD had a large block grant that did not fluctuate with enrollment, and in order to provide the best services to students, out of district transfers were discontinued. Now that the block grant funding has been ended, and the district is once again funded on a per pupil basis from the state, it is worth exploring the possibility of allowing out of district transfers again. When they were previously allowed, roughly 500 students from surrounding districts participated. This could close the enrollment gap we are currently facing. .

Brian Neilson

I will start with student enrollment. If the district wants to win back the parents that are migrating to private school education, a college preparatory focus must be brought back. The pendulum has swung towards picking up disadvantaged students that are not doing well in the home and bringing those troubles to school. Those students need to be served, and I support things like feeding them free meals as often as possible and making sure they are ready for success every day. Further, the brightest of that group needs mentoring, acceleration, and the setting of high bars so they can take advantage of the cognitive gifts they were born with.

For those parents that left, I hear it all has to do with lack of homework, lack of rigor, focus on spending the school day on emotional learning (I might call it government-provided counseling, and I have opted my children out of this), when the student is happy and well-adjusted and just needs to work on math exercises or maybe take a fun elective to broaden their horizons. The focus has been shifted and we need to come back to center.

Let’s face the facts: the student loss is being driven by families with means. Families that if they came back would be donors to initiatives to help the disadvantaged schools and areas. If you want those students back, you have to serve those families as well and not forget them. As Corwin Deep Equity teaches, those students don’t matter, they were born into a power structure and will be fine no matter what happens.

As for budgeting, I have been in corporate finance for 15 years. I have been in investment banking in mergers and acquisitions and larger commercial lending. I have also spent two years reporting to the CFOs of private equity-owned companies and later assisting in their sale. I build budgets and forecast the future, and results come in each month and the business changes. The budgets were about the same size as the district. I look forward to working with the CFO and legislators to bridge the gaps on what we need, and then if we cannot find more government money, then we need to balance taxes and district spending cuts. The focus needs to be on student outcomes and achievement, and if students are not proficient we need to identify what budget spending is not helping to grow achievement and redirect revenues to teachers, classroom supplies and the very best curriculum and away from administrative bloat. You can’t have your cake and eat it. Our opponents are aligned with the philosophy that if you throw more money at a problem it will magically disappear. We need to become targeted in our thinking.

SM East Area

Mary Sinclair

The fiscal health of public school districts is an important responsibility of any school board. The current district leadership team secured a AAA bond rating and put critical guardrails in place to maintain sound fiscal standing (Board Policy DBB, December 2020). The capacity for multi-year planning has also been restored to public schools, through the legislature’s commitment to the 2019 school finance agreement along with the 2017 repair of the state’s fiscal crises.

These steps have strengthened SMSD’s capacity to manage budget fluctuations, whether due to enrollment changes or one-time infusions of COVID-19 federal relief funds. The district’s budget priorities are formally reviewed and revised annually, through the budget development process. SMSD school board budget approval is guided by district leadership recommendations, with input from multiple sources across the district and community. Aspirational goals typically exceed the capped recurring budget, so priorities are weighed against the district’s mission and three objectives.

Putting SMSD enrollment data in context is important for the fiscal look ahead.

First, improvements to the school finance formula include a three-year enrollment window. This allowed SMSD to set base state aid for the current year, using the 2019-2020 higher enrollment count. The formula also allows SMSD to maintain long-term programmatic commitments, like the 5 out of 7 course load for secondary teachers, while adjusting the total number of staff in alignment with class-size guidelines.

Second, public and private schools statewide experienced enrollment declines in response to the global pandemic, more than 3% on average. Over one-third of the public school enrollment decline was in kindergarten and early learning programs. Another third was grades one through four. This statewide enrollment pattern mirrors the impact on Shawnee Mission. While overall district enrollment has rebounded by 422 students since the onset of the pandemic, projections are still short about 580 students. At least three-quarters of the lagging return are at early elementary and pre-K levels, while high school enrollment is up by 43 students.

Given that Kansas compulsory attendance law allows caregivers to delay enrollment of their children until age seven, it is possible that SMSD parents are keeping their youngest children at home until a vaccine is available and/or community transmission rates are down. Steps towards growing and maintaining district enrollment include continuing to provide a safe learning environment, actively sharing information about the incredible opportunities for SMSD students and cultivating awareness of accurate metrics on student progress and achievements.

Zach Roberts

When resources are finite, choices must be made. The district will have to cut spending for things that it wants to pay for things that it needs. Over the last four years, the SMSD budget has increased by at least $50 million. Over that same time, ACT and state achievement scores have declined. The morale of our teachers is low. Enrollment is down. These trends reflect that our district is in some trouble.

I believe that the SMSD governance is distracted. There is too much focus (and dollars spent) on things that do not translate to results in the classroom. The last four years saw implementation of a strategic plan with emphasis on diversity, equity and inclusion training, affinity groups, social emotional learning, and the establishment of a school-based health clinic, to name a few. These were specifically prioritized above teacher salary increases, reduced class sizes and returning teachers to a 5 out of 7 teaching schedule. The plan’s efforts to “reimagine education in our district” may be well intended, but under the purview of this guidance, established metrics indicate more students have fallen behind in English and Math proficiency each year. It is time to renew focus on the core subjects. I would prioritize salary for teachers and aides, appropriate classroom resources, appropriate class size, appropriate planning period ratios and appropriate core curriculum.

I suspect that student enrollment is down because of a combination of issues: disagreement with COVID mitigation policies, erosion of trust between the district and parents, declining academic performance and failing transparency regarding classroom activities, curriculum and governance. Enrollment will continue to decline if these issues are not rectified. I would begin with transparency. Involved parents want to be involved. Acknowledging that in-person learning is a priority, we should also note that COVID mitigation strategies have created barriers for effective communication between parents and teachers that need to be rectified. Electronic curriculum has made parental involvement with homework assignments difficult. Restoring key transparency measures is the cornerstone for rebuilding trust.

SM West Area

Sean Claycamp

SMSD used to be the obvious choice for families. I’m sorry to say that is not the case anymore.

Last year, SMSD’s enrollment went down 1,500 students and some of that was due to COVID, but some of it was not. This year, enrollment recovered, but SMSD still missed projections by quite a bit.

All this is happening in the middle of a housing boom. Every day, I see young families moving into these neighborhoods. Our numbers should be going up or at least holding steady, but they are not.

Every time we lose a student, that represents funding dollars eventually following that student someplace else. Families have choices right now, and for many, SMSD is not the right choice.

After the initial shock of kids learning at home subsided in the spring of 2020, many parents found that home schooling was not as scary as they thought. There are companies entering the K-12 education market responding to the home schooling movement. These companies have low-cost alternatives that make it a simpler task. In addition, private school enrollments are increasing ,and based on the conversations I have had with close to 1,000 SM West families, many of them are considering private school.

I want to be a voice of reason on the SMSD school board that can be part of a comeback. We are sliding. This fact is undeniable. And we are sliding for a variety of reason: lack of transparency and trust between parents and the district, concerns about COVID and related restrictions, a perceived lack of a quality education and the creep of ideologies into the classroom that many parents find concerning.

We need to create an open dialogue between the district and parents. This will create a partnership between parents and educators. Teachers and parents have to work together to educate our students. Working together, we can also improve the morale in this district and make our educators feel respected and appreciated.

I am ready and willing to become a nonpartisan voice on this board and help to stop this slide, but we need to change course before it’s too late. We can see the cliff now unfortunately in the form of declining enrollment and funding.

My goal is to work together to make SMSD the obvious choice for children.

April Boyd-Noronha

Decreased enrollment in the past two years is the result of the myriad of complications caused by the global pandemic. School districts across the country had to make health and safety decisions that did not please everyone, which is often the case in a crisis. Some families decided to homeschool their children or enroll them in private schools. Preparing for future budgets will require our district to go beyond numbers on a spreadsheet and investigate areas for growth in all aspects of our strategic plan. This approach places not only future solvency on the table but renewed confidence of community stakeholders.

As we mull the budgetary impact of the past two years, it would be a mistake for our district to forego taking steps to better understand the ‘why’ of each and every family that decided to place their children elsewhere and take steps to regain their trust; even if it takes years to do so. Of course, not all families chose a different path for the same reason, but better understanding these choices allows our district to be more creative and innovative with how we deliver services in the future.

The global pandemic was both unforeseen and unprecedented and has resulted in many negative outcomes, but it has also held a mirror up to school districts, which is an opportunity for improvement if we are willing. Our district should assess areas where we can improve communication with families. I believe we can raise student enrollment in the years ahead by increasing opportunities for district leadership to listen to the perspectives of community members. We must engage families on the critical issues facing our district and provide them space to communicate their concerns and feelings about curriculum and school safety. These types of conversations are happening in our community all the time, our district must choose to participate and take the lead by committing to listening.

On Friday, we will publish the candidates’ answers to the following question: 

What are your views about the role of technology in the classroom? Are you comfortable with the amount of time students spend on screens during the school day? Why or why not?