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Too many seats and not enough kids: Why New Orleans Public Schools plans to downsize district

Students play at Akili Academy in the Upper 9th Ward. Nov. 13, 2020.
Aubri Juhasz
Students play at Akili Academy in the Upper 9th Ward. Nov. 13, 2020.

There are more than 3,000 empty public school seats in New Orleans, each one costing the district money it doesn’t have, according to data shared at a special school board meeting Thursday morning.

“Based on what we are presenting, we are not looking for [charter] applicants who are going to apply and expect to open a school on a normal timeline,” said district superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr.

Instead, Lewis said their focus will be on “rightsizing” the district, which could include condensing, consolidating and closing schools.

“This work is about our students and the viability of our public school system,” he said.

Lewis described Thursday’s presentation as a preview and said enrollment trends and downsizing strategies will be discussed in greater depth at the board’s January meeting.

Litouri Smith, the district’s chief school accountability officer, gave a brief overview of enrollment trends and said moving forward the focus will be on cutting expenses by eliminating seats, and in some cases, entire facilities to ensure remaining schools have enough resources.

“Currently the district has approximately 20% more seats available than students enrolled,” Smith said. “This percentage of unused seats will grow as enrollment continues to decrease.”

Options the district could look into include working with operators to reconfigure school grade offerings and the number of sections or students each school enrolls per grade. Additionally, Smith and Lewis said there are instances in which the district could ask charter operators to consolidate or close schools.

While the district is not looking to open any new schools for the time being, Lewis said they will continue accepting charter applications for operators looking to take over failing schools that the district thinks should remain open but change hands.

Smith said another component of the district’s rightsizing plan would be selling lower quality facilities and making better use of newer, high quality buildings. Since Hurricane Katrina, the district has constructed 21 new buildings and completely renovated or refurbished another 12 facilities. Another 29 buildings have been refurbished or stabilized.

Louisiana, like most states, relies on a per-pupil funding model to ensure that money follows students wherever they go. While this model is largely effective, Smith said problems can arise when schools fail to enroll enough students to cover fixed costs and still have enough money to provide high quality instruction.

When this happens, schools are forced to cut programs like art and music in order to pay teacher salaries, maintain buildings or make storm repairs.

Before the pandemic, schools could rely on additional funding from local sales tax to help offset a loss in state money due to lower enrollment. Now that money no longer feels like a reliable safety net, Lewis said, since New Orleans’ tourism revenue has been severely diminished for several years.

Without that, the district is considering other ways to close the gap and is already talking to school leaders about ways to cut costs by reducing capacity.

According to data collected from individual schools as recently as Wednesday as part of an analysis by the district and the education nonprofit New Schools for New Orleans (NSNO), there are nearly 3,400 empty seats this school year across grades K-12.

While the district plans to close two charter schools at the end of the school year, Smith said the number of excess seats will still exceed 3,000 because other schools have already been approved to expand.

The largest number of empty seats are in grades K-4, where there’s room for approximately 400 children to enroll in each grade level. High school grades have between 100 and 200 extra seats. Meanwhile seventh and eighth grade seats are close to capacity.

Smith said the district plans to work with school leaders to increase junior high capacity, while reducing the number of extra seats across all other grades.

Holly Reid, chief of policy and portfolio for NSNO, said forecasts produced and shared by NSNO in 2016 found public school enrollment would continue to increase over the next 10 years, but that didn’t happen. Instead, the city-wide population stalled in the mid-2010s and has decreased since then, impacting public school enrollment.

“Kindergarten cohorts have declined 17% since 2013, and that has impacted the older grader as we’ve moved through that cohort,” Reid said. “Younger grade cohorts have started shrinking, which is very different from what we forecast.”

While public school enrollment hasn’t grown as expected, private school competition doesn’t appear to be a significant factor, Reid said.

New Orleans’ public schools gained 7,000 students between 2011 and 2020, while its private schools lost 2,000 students, she said. As a result, the percentage of New Orleans students attending public school increased from 70% to 76%.

Reid said the data suggest the factors impacting enrollment are largely out of the school district’s control and have to do with the city’s birth rate and overall population trends.

Birth rates have declined significantly since 2015, and overall population growth has slowed. More people are actually leaving the parish than coming in every year, Reid said, pointing to soaring home prices and the rising cost of living as a potential cause.

Like Lewis and Smith, Reid said the quality of instruction offered by New Orleans’ public schools could diminish if the district doesn’t downsize. While schools will continue paying their utility and maintenance costs, they’ll be forced to cut enrichment and social and emotional learning programs, she said.

Reid said the solution, short of raising local taxes, is figuring out how to cut fixed costs related to facilities in order to free up more money for day-to-day learning. That means fewer schools and fewer school buildings, she said, as well as getting multiple charters to split costs whenever possible, whether it means sharing school busses or even staff members.

David Hand, the district’s executive director of data systems and solutions, said the data also makes clear where parents want their children to go. While there’s a large number of empty seats overall, 100% of the city’s A-rated schools and 90% of its B-rated schools are full.

“It’s not a coincidence that we have the most space open in our F-rated schools,” Hand said.

The board selected Greenwood/Asher & Associates to carry out its superintendent search process at its last meeting and received an update from the organization at Thursday’s meeting.

Betty Asher, the firm’s co-founder and search lead, said her team has already connected with local stakeholders referred to them by board members and plans to hold community listening sessions through the end of January.

Next steps include finalizing the superintendent job posting, placing advertisements and seeking nominations, Asher said.

The district already has a dedicated website to update the community on all developments related to the superintendent search process.

Firm officials said they plan to recruit both local and national talent with attention to charter experience.

Board president Ethan Ashley said the district hopes to hire a new superintendent no later than April. Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. is set to leave the position when his contract expires at the end of June 2022.

Aubri Juhasz covers K-12 education, focusing on charter schools, education funding, and other statewide issues. She also helps edit the station’s news coverage.

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