School district facing cuts due to student exodus that began with pandemic

The pandemic may be over, but many school districts are just starting to suffer the coronavirus’ ill effects on the health of their finances — their own strain of financial “long COVID” with no end immediately in sight.

Public schools across the state and country experienced a significant decline in enrollment during the pandemic that has continued well after the lockdowns. Nationally, some two percent of all students have left public schools. Minnesota school districts lost 23,000 students and the vital state funding tied to them between 2018-2022.

The West Central Tribune notes that the reality that many MIA students may be gone for good has begun sinking in for Willmar school administrators, who are bracing for likely staff and program cuts next academic year.

…the loss of enrollment in recent years indicates that budget cuts may be needed. The state of Minnesota provides more than 80% of the district’s revenue, and the majority is based on the number of students.

The district had 4,080 students at the end of last week, Haase said, and in the same week a year ago, enrollment was 135 students higher.

In January 2020, before the pandemic, enrollment was 4,336, which represents a net loss of 256 students in three years.

More families and students are opting out of Willmar schools in favor of homeschooling and private schools. At the same time, a lopsided loss of students to open enrollment has also become a source of concern for administrators.

More than a decade ago, the number of students leaving and entering Willmar’s schools through open enrollment was about the same.

That is no longer the case. In the state’s most recent open enrollment report for the 2020-21 school year, 113 students entered the district but 643 students left, a net loss of 530 students to other districts.

Millions of dollars in federal aid provided during the pandemic will no longer be available to tide the district over again next year. Tough choices appear to be inevitable.

Pandemic relief aid has helped school districts provide services to help districts make building improvements and hire workers to help students navigate the disruptions of the pandemic.

However, much of that funding has already expired, and the remainder will expire by September 2024.

Superintendent Jeff Holm said this is the second time since he joined the district in 2015 that budget cuts have been under consideration.

“We’ve always looked for ways to be efficient,” he said.

Board member Mike Reynolds said, “We got spoiled for a while.”

Unless administrators find a way to woo families back, Willmar and other school districts will need to adjust to the financial fallout from the increased competition ignited by the pandemic.