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Districts hit with enrollment losses amid pandemic

Revised funding formula cushions financial blow

Struggling with the educational, financial and health impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, most school districts across Kent County lost enrollment in the fall student count day, Wednesday, Oct. 7. 

While a few districts gained students, enrollment drops ranged from a few dozen to 100- and 200-plus students, a survey of Kent ISD’s 20 districts by School News Network found. Of 17 districts that responded as of press time, 14 reported enrollment declines.  

Related: Fall student count day shows steep declines for several districts

Yet due to changes in the state’s school funding formula, and a one-time increase of $65 per student, the financial hit from student losses was not nearly as bad as it would have been under the old formula, district leaders said. Nevertheless, districts face huge uncertainties due the pandemic and a shaken economy, as well as costly challenges to protect the health of students and staff.   

The annual count day was an even greater challenge this year due to the pandemic and schools’ various instruction models. For instance, with 100 percent remote learning until Oct. 26, Grand Rapids Public Schools will take a month to count its students, while Northview Public Schools students on a hybrid schedule were not in attendance Wednesday due to weekly building sanitizing.

Though the enrollment figures are preliminary and still must be audited, they suggest many students may be opting for home-schooling, charter or private schools while public districts navigate a variety of in-person, online and hybrid instructional models. It appears some parents also held their children back from kindergarten or pre-kindergarten.

‘The change in the formula definitely helped us.’

— Mike Cuneo, Rockford Public Schools

The losses span urban, suburban and rural districts, including major drops in Caledonia, Cedar Springs, Forest Hills, Kelloggsville, Lowell and Rockford. 

“I’ve been here for 20 years, and this is the first time I’ve seen it drop by that much,” said Mike Cuneo, superintendent of finance for Rockford Public Schools, where Wednesday’s count of 7,740 students was a decline of 238 from last fall.

The district may have lost students to home schools, virtual charters, or parochial schools that opened in-person before Rockford did, Cuneo said. Still, he said he sees the loss as “a temporary blip” that will see students come back once a vaccine is widely available. 

In Cedar Springs, where officials had projected a gain of 20 students, Wednesday instead saw a loss of 132, down to 3,445 students, said Chief Financial Officer Chris LaHaie. Though many students have opted for home-schooling, he added, “we are confident they will be returning once we have moved beyond the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Losses Softened by Formula Change 

Still, those districts’ financial losses were cushioned by the $65 per-student increase and a revised funding formula approved this year by the state Legislature. Districts will see 75 percent of their funding based on their 2019 spring and fall enrollments and 25 percent on 2020 spring and fall enrollments, rather than 90 percent based on this year and 10 percent on spring 2019 under the previous formula.

In Rockford, what could have been a $1.6 million loss under the former funding formula essentially was a wash for the district budget under the new one, Cuneo said. “The change in the formula definitely helped us,” along with federal stimulus money, Cuneo said. “We’re not out of the woods yet, but we’re looking better.” 

And in Cedar Springs, the revised “super-blend” funding formula will provide state aid for more students than are currently in the district, LaHaie said. Along with the $65 per-pupil increase, that will provide $691,336 more than the district would have received under the traditional formula, he said. 

Fodder for Future Funding  

One superintendent suggested the state should consider the benefits of the revised funding formula long-term.  

“We are grateful to Governor Whitmer and the legislature for basing 75% of the current year student count on last year’s student count to allow districts to have certainty with the budget during tumultuous times,” said Kevin Polston, superintendent of Godfrey-Lee Public Schools, which lost 16 students. “Using a multiyear formula for student count is a reform the state should consider into the future as well.”

While discussing that possibility has merit, a long-term “super-blend” formula would have “winners and losers,” said Kevin Philipps, Kent ISD assistant superintendent for administrative services. Variations could be considered to develop the most equitable formula for all, he added, but called the revision this year “a positive, proactive move by the Legislature to provide security for funding” in a year of such uncertain enrollment. 

“Considering the logistical and financial challenges districts faced this summer developing in-person and remote learning instructional models,” he said, “having greater certainty about the student enrollment variable of state funding was a great relief for districts.”

Beth Heinen Bell contributed to this story 

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SNN story: Bigger-than-expected K-12 budget brings relief, unknowns remain

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Charles Honey
Charles Honey
Charles Honey is editor-in-chief of SNN, and covers Rockford and Grand Rapids. As a reporter for The Grand Rapids Press/mLive from 1985 to 2009, his beats included Grand Rapids Public Schools, local colleges and education issues. Honey served as editor of The Press’ award-winning Religion section for 15 years and its columnist for 20. His freelance articles have appeared in Christianity Today, Religion News Service and Faith & Leadership magazine. Read Charles' full bio or email Charles.

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