Enrollment drops sharply in Santa Cruz County public schools amid demographic changes, affordability woes

Backpacks hang outside a classroom at Main Street Elementary in Soquel.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

With Santa Cruz County’s K-12 schools seeing the largest annual decline in enrollment in almost 30 years, officials at the county and district levels are examining cost-saving strategies and ways to keep families in neighborhoods and to maximize resources.

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Santa Cruz County’s K-12 schools saw the largest annual decline in enrollment in almost 30 years this year, a trend district leaders say they are watching with growing alarm.

County Superintendent of Schools Faris Sabbah said that while the decline this past year was the largest in several decades, what has many concerned are the projections showing that the trend will continue — and if it does, funding to schools will decline as well.

“The educational community is concerned that if we have less students to serve, there’ll be less resources that are coming in,” he said. “We want our families to stay — we want to serve those students.”

With 38,025 students this year, the county’s school population reached its lowest point since the mid-1990s. Enrollment dropped 2.2% (by 870 students) this year compared to last year across the county’s public schools. That comes amid a statewide decline of 0.67% — demonstrating that Santa Cruz County is seeing a greater decline than other parts of the state.

Santa Cruz County Superintendent of Schools Faris Sabbah
Santa Cruz County Superintendent of Schools Faris Sabbah.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Sabbah pointed to the pandemic, along with demographic changes such as an aging population and lower birth rates, as a major factor that accelerated the already established trend of the state’s declining population.

During the pandemic, the number of homeschooled children increased, private schools saw a boost in enrollment and some students left school for a paycheck — all factors that could have contributed to declining enrollment in Santa Cruz County and across California at that time. Since the 2019-20 school year, the county has seen a drop of nearly 2,600 students.

For the pandemic years, Sabbah said county officials were expecting an annual 1% drop in enrollment, but they saw double that.

Sabbah also pointed to people moving out of California or away from the coast to other parts of the state. “What we’re seeing is that, for many reasons, families are leaving the area to find more affordable housing,” he said. “And the folks coming into the area are ones that are families that don’t have school-aged children.”

While schools generally aren’t yet facing tough budget decisions caused directly by declining enrollment — Sabbah says there haven’t been drastic staffing or program cuts — they’re looking ahead with caution and starting to come up with cost-saving strategies.

The majority of schools in the county get their funding based on a mix of student population, attendance and property taxes. If enrollment declines and attendance goes down, those schools may have to make cuts. Schools might have to cut staffing and programs, or — depending on the severity of the situation — could eventually face the decision of whether or not to close a school.

In addition to the pandemic making projections complicated, school districts are also having to estimate how almost 13,000 new state-mandated housing units across the county could affect enrollment over the next 10 years.

Sabbah said he hears many stories of families and the education workforce struggling to find housing in Santa Cruz County. “There are families whose rent continues to increase, or families that were displaced by the floods being unable to find housing, or teachers who are offered contracts and accepted contracts but then are unable to find a financially feasible housing location for them,” he said. “[Some] have to decline the job after it’s been offered to them.”

That has prompted several school districts to pursue workforce housing projects. Pajaro Valley Unified School District is in talks to close a real estate purchase for workforce housing. Live Oak School District is exploring a project and Santa Cruz City Schools is hoping to have its workforce housing done in about three years.

While PVUSD and LOSD are in much earlier stages and have yet to finalize plans, Santa Cruz City Schools is building about 80 units for its staff and teachers on a parcel of land at 313 Swift St. on the Westside.

Some districts are researching how other communities have kept families in neighborhoods. For example, Sabbah said a group of Watsonville leaders is visiting a San Francisco-based organization, Mission Economic Development Agency, to learn how it’s helping immigrant families in the Mission neighborhood build equity, such as providing free workshops on creating business plans or free coaches on how to buy a house.

Santa Cruz City Schools launched the Vision 2030 Committee in March to analyze declining enrollment, study the potential causes and solutions to offset reduced funding and resources. The group of about 50 committee members is made up of parents and teacher representatives from every school site as well as a few classified staff members.

Superintendent Kris Munro said the committee will make a recommendation to her in the fall about how the district can best use its resources to serve future students.

Casey Carlson, the president of the teachers union — called the Greater Santa Cruz Federation of Teachers — and a member of the Vision 2030 committee, said she’s glad the district is being thoughtful about how to approach declining enrollment. She taught in the district’s secondary schools for 25 years and regularly heard families list affordability and housing as the main reasons for leaving the area.

“What I heard as the most cited reason for leaving was the cost of living in Santa Cruz — the inability to rent or buy,” she said. “And if people stay in the area, they tend to move down towards Watsonville or Salinas where it’s slightly more affordable.”

During their most recent meeting earlier this month, committee members were tasked with going to their respective communities to ask for ideas on how to generate revenue, how to reduce costs and any other ideas to maximize resources.

“If there are cuts, [teachers] would want them to be as far away from the classrooms and the schools as possible,” Carlson said. “They want all programs we looked at — including district office-level positions, can we look at those for cost savings?”

Some cost-saving and revenue-generating ideas the district is looking into, or has already started, include reducing its energy footprint and renting out unused office space.

While all school districts are having a hard time making projections because of changing factors — such as the pandemic’s many impacts — Santa Cruz City Schools has its own unique challenges.

Santa Cruz City Schools Superintendent Kris Munro.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Munro said the committee has spent the first few meetings understanding the district’s unique funding situation and the enrollment data. The district and county have been using a 2022 projection from the state Department of Finance showing that the county’s enrollment could drop 17% by 2031. In other words, they’re preparing for the county’s K-12 population to potentially drop by more than 6,000 students between 2021 and 2031.

However, Munro said they encountered a “wrinkle in planning” when the county and its four cities approved plans to fulfill state-mandated housing units they have to add to their inventories by 2031.

Last month, the City of Santa Cruz approved its initial plans to fit more than 3,700 new housing units within city boundaries by 2031. Unincorporated parts of the county and the cities of Capitola, Watsonville and Scotts Valley will have to add a total of 9,243 units, for a total of 12,979 across the county by 2031.

Munro added that Santa Cruz City Schools has no clear way of knowing how those added units could affect its enrollment numbers over the next 10 years, and that makes planning much more difficult.

“Seventeen percent is a big hit. But it’s looking like that may or may not happen,” she said of the projected attendance drop. “We’re going to see a lot of development here. And when there’s development, there’s more students who need instruction.”

The committee will have one more meeting before taking a break over the summer, and then it will start to ramp up engagement with more community members when committee members return for additional meetings when the new academic year starts.

FOR THE RECORD: This story has been changed to clarify what factors contribute to funding most of the schools in the county.


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