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Facing Enrollment Decline, One California School District Finds Opportunities in their Budget

ERS works closely with school system leaders and their real data. To preserve confidentiality, in the blog below we anonymized the name of a school system we worked with so that we could share highlights from their story!

District Y is a small urban school system located in northern California, serving about 2,500 K-8 students. Like many districts in the state, it faces significant enrollment decline and a worsening budget deficit. District Y students have high needs - in every school, more than 80% of students qualify for free-and-reduced-price lunch, and the district’s special education population is higher than the state average. In early 2019, leaders wanted to better understand current spending patterns and how to reallocate scarce resources to support their key strategies for student success.

In that context, District Y called upon ERS for a quick turn-around analysis of the district’s resource use. The project is based on ERS’ nearly fifteen years of experience working with school systems around the country, using a variety of approaches - from in-depth, months-long analyses of financial, human capital, and school-level data, to a more diagnostic approach we call the Strategic System Snapshot. For this project, District Y wanted a rapid analysis of high-level issues and themes - so we tailored the approach to their needs.

Over four days, the ERS team worked intensively to gather, analyze, and make meaning of both quantitative and qualitative data from interviews as well as district financial, HR and student information data. ERS' findings and recommendations were explored in the following presentation:

Summary of Findings

  • Low per-pupil funding: Through District Y appears to have high per-pupil funding compared to others in its county, after accounting for student need District Y appears to be the lowest-funded district in the county - with $1,400 less per-pupil than average.
  • High costs: District Y spends more nominal dollars than average largely because of:
    • The extra staff needed to educate its high-need student population - including special education and reading recovery staff, psychologists, guidance counselors, and additional teachers. 
    • The high fixed costs of small schools. These schools are not intentionally small, but rather have been reduced due to enrollment drain.
  • The design limitations of small schools: Having unintentionally small schools can limit schools’ ability to provide collaborative planning and feedback time for teacher teams, making it harder for teachers to improve their teaching practice. This also presents an opportunity to make school sizes more effective, perhaps through consolidation.

The ERS team also identified opportunities for District Y to reallocate resources toward their priorities. These include:

  • Better retaining excellent teachers: District Y can improve its teaching force by proactively encouraging the best teachers to stay and offering them leadership opportunities that increase their impact on school wide teaching and culture, as well as working with principals to find creative ways to increase teacher team time.
  • Better support novice teachers: District Y can use a variety of scheduling and team options to ensure rookie teachers have "shelter" and "development" - i.e. a lighter courseload and opportunities to grow through coaching.
  • School planning: District Y can more effectively support principals in yearly school planning - which will allow those leaders to identify and implement new schedules and provide more teacher leadership opportunities.

The findings above are typical of those ERS discovers in many of our district partnerships, but we have found that a quick diagnostic can be a powerful - and streamlined - way for districts to uncover high-level answers to important questions about their resource use and to identify opportunities to use resources more powerfully.

Next Steps: The Strategic System Snapshot | Mini is a 10 minute online assessment that asks district leaders to compare their resource use to best practices found in research and at high-performing districts from around the country. 




Facing Enrollment Decline, One California School District Finds Opportunities in their Budget
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