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Districts work to enroll students amid concerns over funding shortfalls

School, education, teacher, student
Posted at 2:50 PM, Jan 27, 2021

The state of education is still in flux as students and teachers navigate so many unknowns.

Right now districts and charters are focused on enrolling students for the fall and those numbers will be critical in helping schools rebound.

FULL COVERAGE: Safely Back to School in Arizona

It's not how most families envision learning about kindergarten, a drive-thru event with car-side conversations.

"It's very interesting, it's different," said Julia Hunt, whose daughter is entering kindergarten in the fall.

"It's a little challenging, this helps out a lot, being able to get some information straight from the teachers and the principals and everything," said Ryan Goins, whose son is entering kindergarten.

This event is one of several creative ways the Washington Elementary School District is working to connect with families, hoping to boost enrollment for next school year.

"We've had to think outside the box this year," said Manzanita Elementary School Principal Ashanti Givens. "We want our kids in school, we want them learning, we want them participating and making sure that they're taken care of."

Districts and charters across Arizona are doing the same in different ways, and the stakes are only getting higher.

"The general trend across the state is declining enrollment which means declining revenue," said Chuck Essigs, who is director of government relations for the Arizona Association of School Business Officials.

The group's members are like the CFOs for school districts, working to balance a budget with numbers that either keep changing or don't even exist yet.

"This has probably been the worst school year anyone can remember, because of the unknowns," said Essigs.

As of the fall, enrollment in public schools was down five percent statewide. Some of the valley's largest districts are seeing signs of that same trend, even before their 100-day counts.

Over the summer, Governor Doug Ducey announced the Enrollment Stabilization Grant Program. It promised districts and charters would not lose more than two percent of their previous year's funding if students went elsewhere.

The money set aside is already falling short because of larger-than-expected declines.

Essigs says that, coupled with a lower funding rate for distance learning, could spell disaster heading into next year.

"It's really hard for school districts to scale back because so much of their funding goes into paying staff, said Essigs. "They're going to have to make a lot of predictions and hopefully a lot of the predictions hold true."

A lot hinges on what happens in the legislature and if schools are able to start, or expand, in-person learning as more educators get the COVID-19 vaccine. Districts have to adopt a budget by July 15 so schools should have a better idea of the shortfalls they are facing come this spring.