It doesn’t appear that long ago, school districts in Marin were asking local voters to raise taxes to help them cope with soaring enrollment.
In almost all cases, voters approved the tax hike, and some districts are still busy building new, modern classrooms and other upgrades.
Today, many of these districts are facing the challenges of a sharp drop in enrollment.
For example, in the Reed Union School District serving the Tiburon Peninsula, enrollment is down 14% from last year. In Mill Valley, the size of the student body is down 11%.
These drops can mean fewer classes and fewer teachers on their payroll.
Earlier this year, in fact, Novato principals tackled the difficult issue of closing one of their elementary school campuses. That decision has been on hold for now, but the 3% drop in the Novato Unified School District only increases the budget pressure for action.
These are not new challenges. Across the country, since the 1970s, we have seen repeated increases and decreases in registrations. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, many local districts closed campuses only to have to reopen them when enrollment rebounded.
Now, many districts are facing constant decline and are trying to guess – hopefully – when it will stabilize. Or, again, get up.
Mary Jane Burke, the longtime superintendent of Marin schools, has seen this roller coaster trail before.
This time around, she speculates, the drop may have been fueled by the move of households from Marin due to issues related to the COVID-19 pandemic. In many cases, the growth of online working has loosened the tether of people having to live close to their jobs.
While these vacant homes provide an opportunity for young families to move in, Marin’s high property prices are a huge barrier for those just starting out.
Some districts, such as Lagunitas, are seeing a transition – attrition – of larger classes of eighth graders graduating, while incoming kindergarten classes tend to be much smaller.
This trend is evident in the Tamalpais Union High School district, where enrollment fell by only two students, while many of its elementary “feeding” schools have seen much larger declines. In some cases, this trend reflects a downward trend in the birth rate in some communities where families are maturing, “empty nesters” remain in their family homes, and fewer homes are available for young families.
New state laws to ease local restrictions on housing construction must be factored into district decisions about school closures. There may be a new influx of families and students.
Additionally, over the past two decades, immigration has also fueled public school enrollment and is expected to continue to be a factor.
In some cases, decisions to close and sell campuses during the 1980s were regretted when enrollment rebounded.
We need to be aware of the costs and benefits of actions taken to respond to past cycles of local registration. This setback should allow us to avoid making similar mistakes as we face another turning point in the ups and downs in the number of school-aged children.