Rochester students left public schools during pandemic, budget hole remains

A screengrab of a meeting video.
Board members of the Rochester Public Schools hold a meeting on Tuesday. The district is facing a projected $23 million budget deficit. In part, the financial losses are driven by the loss of students during the pandemic — a phenomenon that's playing out around the state.
Screengrab of Rochester Public Schools video

In the fall of 2020, when Dr. Angela Thompson found out that her three kids would be heading back to Rochester Public Schools to a hybrid classroom, the on-again-off-again schedule didn't work for her or her husband, who owns a restaurant. 

That's how she and her spouse found themselves homeschooling their children — it offered stability that they could build their work schedule around. 

"If we just have the curriculum and just do homeschool we'll eliminate any possibility of issues with hybrid [learning],” she said. “We tried to keep some consistency."

Thompson's kids are among the net 660 kids who left the school district during the first year of the pandemic and haven't returned. About half left the region or state. A quarter left for private schools or homeschooling. Others went to nearby districts. 

With those departures went roughly $8,000 in funding per pupil, according to the district. 

It’s a phenomenon playing out in school districts around the state, said Minnesota Association of School Administrators Deb Henton.

"We've been seeing enrollment decline since the start of the pandemic, families have been choosing different options for their students because of their own family needs, and because of the uncertainty of sending their students to school,” she said. 

Some parents are worried about their kids getting sick, some have concerns about COVID mitigation measures. 

Henton said schools have seen more kids come back during this school year, but not always enough have comeback to erase related budget shortfalls. 

"It's tied to funding,” Henton said. “And so it makes it very difficult for school districts to continue to offer the kind of programming they have in the past.”

Academic, social concerns

Parent Jessica Cruz said the hybrid model the school district adopted for the 2020-21 school year was hard on her then-kindergartener and first-grader.

"I think the students didn't get the level of instruction that they should have had,” she said. “I found that both of my children, who were doing quite well academically, actually regressed during that year."

Cruz is among parents who moved their kids to the nearby Byron School District, where she says her children are getting a more rigorous education. There have been no periods of distance learning. Her kids haven't been quarantined despite close COVID exposures because her kids wear masks every day to school — even though they are optional.

Cruz said that while she and her family take COVID-19 seriously, she felt like mitigation measures in the Rochester school district ignored students' academics and social needs.

"School needs to be a priority, both from an academic standpoint as well as a student mental health standpoint," Cruz said.

A person holds a sign.
Aleta Borrud (right) holds a sign outside of a at Rochester Public Schools board meeting in Rochester, Minn., in July 2021.
Evan Frost | MPR News 2021.

Meanwhile, Thompson, who said she’s generally supported COVID mitigation measures and vaccination against the virus, has concerns that masking kids has come at the expense of their academic and social development. 

Looking at other countries that haven’t required kids to wear masks at school, Thompson said she became frustrated that the district hasn’t considered more targeted masking policies. 

It’s among the reasons she is now sending her children to a local Catholic school. While her kids are still required to wear masks there, she said her school seems more open to making them optional. 

“We have a very high prevalence of eligible individuals who were fully vaccinated in our county. So, from that standpoint, that would be a time to discuss [optional masking],” she said. 

A growing gap

In previous years, Rochester Public Schools has predicted enrollment with remarkable accuracy, often coming within less than a percentage point of estimating how many students it will serve annually.

But during the 2020-2021 school year, that number was off by 4.6 percent because of the unexpected nature of the pandemic. 

Nevertheless, disenrollment directly tied to the pandemic isn't the deficit's biggest driver, said Interim Superintendent Kent Pekel. 

It's a growing gap between student enrollment and staffing. 

"Enrollment has increased in Rochester Public Schools about 8 percent over the last 12 years. Our number of staff has grown significantly faster — about 31 percent. And so that, obviously, is not a sustainable strategy given that all of our funding depends on enrollment,” he said. 

The construction of new schools, which were approved before the pandemic, will also result in some near-term costs. While those facilities may open at lower than expected capacity, Pekel is confident that space will be filled eventually.

The budget deficit, which predates the start of Pekel's tenure, was on the district's radar under its previous superintendent, who resigned last spring after it was revealed he had plagiarized school communications

Fixing the deficit will require swift action, said Pekel. Earlier this week, the board approved a plan to whittle away $7 million of its shortfall by eliminating budgeted but open positions and making some program cuts.

In the following school year, the district may see more painful cuts. And the school board is considering a referendum to raise money.

Meanwhile, Pekel said it's critical to keep tabs on why kids are leaving. 

"I've continually said the biggest most important solution to our financial challenges is to be the provider of choice for Rochester families, all Rochester families."

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