Declining enrollments and increased wages and benefits could force the Gilroy Unified School District to close an elementary school by the 2020-21 school year, according to a recent staff report.
“It’s very scary, frankly,” said Gilroy School Board President Linda Piceno of the possibility of closing an elementary school in Gilroy. “Declining enrollment is new to Gilroy Unified. It’s happening to more than half the districts in the county, but it is unsettling after decades of increasing enrollment in Gilroy to have declining enrollment.”
About 30 miles to the north, Oak Grove School District closed three of its elementary schools before the start of this school year, citing a 15 percent drop in student enrollment. One of the main sources of funding for any school district is average daily attendance, which is based on how many students are at school each day during the school year.
In Gilroy, last year’s enrollment dropped by 250 students, which resulted in over $2 million less in funding for the current school year, according to district staff. That pattern continued into 2018-19 school year, with district staff estimating 160 fewer students this year than the 2017-18 year, resulting in a $1.5 million drop in ADA funds.
“I never thought I would see that in Gilroy (but) it’s a reality we have to deal with,” said Piceno, who has been with the district for three decades prior to joining the board. She ran for re-election in 2018 knowing there would be tough decisions ahead, such as possibly closing a school.
The head-scratcher to many in Gilroy is how there can be declining enrollment with all the new housing being built throughout the city.
Piceno said families with school-age children simply can’t afford to buy houses in Gilroy anymore with the median home price now over $800,000.
“We’re not getting families in,” said Piceno, who said the area’s low birth rate is another factor. “It’s down by about 15 to 20 percent and has been. So clearly people who are moving in are not having babies and additionally do not have them when they come in.”
Piceno added that an increase in a school district’s contribution to employee retirement benefits (soon to be up to 18-20 percent) is another key factor that has forced cuts in other areas.
In June 2018, GUSD staff proposed almost $1 million in cuts for the 2018-19 school year. Now they are recommending a $4 million budget reduction over the next two years.
Earlier this month, the board “provided direction to staff to establish a Superintendent’s Advisory Committee, tasked with analyzing the possibility of an elementary school closure,” according to the Oct. 18 agenda.
“While the funding loss of $3.7 million is equivalent to the funding necessary to support an entire elementary campus, it is important to distinguish the savings that may be generated from a school closure will be substantially less; as the savings are primarily limited to the non-instructional staff at the school,” according to staff.
The deepest cut on the preliminary list of potential budget cuts for 2019-20 school year is $1.2 million in full-time employee reductions. That’s followed by about $271,000 to leave two new IT positions unfilled; $250,000 in summer school reductions; a $250,000 reduction in funding for textbook adoption; and $246,192 by cutting two Teachers of Special Assignment positions.
The target number in total cutbacks for 2019-20 is $3,379,501, according to the staff report.
“This is our reality at this point, and we have to be creative. We also have to be pragmatic and we need to look at everything,” Piceno said. “As I stated at the board meeting, every program, every position is somebody’s sacred cow. Everybody is fine until their cow gets gored.”
The board took no action on the proposed cuts at its Oct. 18 meeting.
“This level of reduction is necessary to address the erosion of revenue, and address the increase in employee’s total compensation through 2020-21,” according to staff. “Putting it simply, revenues are declining while expenditures are rising. Ongoing cuts are necessary to maintain fiscal stability.”
Coincidentally, at that same meeting, the board ratified separate pay raises for its executive cabinet (superintendent and two assistant supes) and classified staff to align them with the increases negotiated by the Gilroy Teachers Association in their latest contract (see related story).
“We’re the largest employer in Gilroy and we take our position as employers very, very seriously. Of course we want to hire the best and keep the best and have a good work environment for all of our employees,” Piceno said. “We’ve also got big decisions to make in the budget and we’ve got to start moving on that.”
The only item detailed on the potential cut list for 2020-21 was the school closure, which Piceno said would be an elementary school yet to be determined. Until earlier this year, the district was moving forward with plans to build a new elementary school, but postponed that project after reviewing its enrollment numbers over the last two years and projections for future years. Instead, the district decided to re-allocate those bond funds to modernize Brownell and South Valley middle schools.
“We’re not exactly getting huge amounts from Sacramento,” said Piceno, adding that California has one of the lowest per-pupil spending ratio in the nation despite having the fifth largest economy. “And we expect a first class education for our kids with that kind of spending from Sacramento.”
The board and district staff will meet with a demographer in the next few months for an enrollment update, according to Piceno.