Pandemic-related declines in Kansas public school enrollment raise fears of education budget cuts

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WICHITA, Kansas— Kansas public schools are feeling the pinch of enrollment losses that have accompanied the COVID-19 pandemic — and that could mean fewer teachers, larger class sizes and widespread budget cuts.

The number of students enrolled in Kansas public schools has dropped by more than 15,000 since the pandemic began, according to state data. Some of these students may have moved out of state, but many have likely turned to home schooling or online education.

Federal COVID relief money helped districts cover early deficits. But longer-term student losses will mean less state funding.

“We’ll have to start reducing the budget footprint because the student footprint is going down,” said Susan Willis, chief financial officer for the state’s largest district in Wichita. “And it seems to be more definitely down, and not just a year-long COVID anomaly.”

Enrollment in Wichita has fallen more than 7% over the past six years. Part of that came from falling birth rates and changing housing patterns. But COVID has made the problem worse, especially in kindergarten and kindergarten.

Kansas gives schools some leeway to accommodate abnormal years and protect them from sudden fluctuations in enrollment. Districts may use the highest enrollment figure from the previous two school years to establish their budgets.

But two years into the pandemic, students are not returning to public schools en masse. Districts are therefore entering budget discussions with reduced enrollment figures and tighter belts.

“The decline … in enrollment prevents us from waiting any longer,” John Hutchison, deputy superintendent of Olathe Public Schools, said at a town hall meeting to answer questions about the budget cuts. “More money from growth is not really going to come.”

Olathe District is looking to cut more than $28 million next school year. Officials plan to shut down the district’s virtual school, cut kindergarten aides and eliminate library clerks in middle and high schools.

In Lawrence, early budget plans included a proposal to close several schools, but this was dropped after a public outcry. The district plans to eliminate dozens of elementary teaching positions in combine grades in some classes.

Meanwhile, costs rise for food, fuel, and other supplies.

Kansas lawmakers approved a bill last week that would allow students to transfer to any public school district with the ability to take them. If approved by Governor Laura Kelly, the open enrollment measure would come into effect for the 2024-25 school year. State per-pupil funding would follow a child through the district they attend.

Lawmakers rejected a $30 million additional funding proposal for special education. Proponents of the measure said districts should cover excess special education costs by transferring money from other areas of the budget.

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Suzanne Perez reports on education for KMUW in Wichita and the Kansas News Service. Follow her on Twitter @SuzPerezICT. The Kansas News Service is a collaboration between Kansas Public Radio, KCUR, KMUW, and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health, and how they relate to public policy. Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished by news outlets free of charge with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.

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