NOLA Public Schools' West Bank headquarters.

Due to declining enrollment and financial impacts from COVID-19, NOLA Public Schools district Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. announced a proposal to “right-size” the district, a plan that could include charter school consolidations and even closures, at a special Orleans Parish School Board meeting Thursday.

“We felt it was important to brief the board on this, even though we will come formally with a demographer next month to talk about what our city looks like,” Lewis said.

“This work is about the students and viability of our school system,” Lewis said. “Knowing our revenues are going down, we need to make sure our kids are taken care of.”

Public schools in Louisiana receive a mix of state and local funding for each student they enroll. Local dollars come from property tax revenue and a portion of sales taxes. Sales tax revenues have been down since the beginning of the pandemic, which has hit some of the city’s biggest sales tax revenue drivers particularly hard.

In New Orleans, a significant portion of sales tax collections are dependent on tourism and food service, which ground to a halt as much of the country, and the world, sheltered at home to try to stem the spread of the coronavirus. Those industries have rebound somewhat, but school systems in particular will feel the financial impacts for several years after such an event, in part because the state’s portion of funding is set on a per-pupil basis at the beginning of each school year and not adjusted until the following year, even when state tax collections improve.

Interim Chief School Accountability Officer Litouri Smith presented the “District Optimization” plan. It will take citywide school enrollment and the use of the district’s facilities into account and ultimately produce recommendations that could include changes in the number of seats in each classroom or grades offered at schools, consolidations of charter schools or groups and up to “charter schools surrendering their schools” or effectively closure. 

“These are some tough decisions we’re going to have to make,” Board president Ethan Ashley said while thanking district staff for their work.

“I think it’s really important we address this before it becomes a crisis,” board member Olin Parker said. “And address it so … we can continue offering music and art and all those things that make school memorable.”

Enrollment expectations

Smith said the city has 47,000 public school students, including children enrolled in a handful of non-OPSB charter schools authorized by the state. Combined, the schools have more than 3,000 seats of excess capacity, even after accounting for a five percent buffer built in in case of surges in enrollment. Smith presented the 3,000 seat count as a “negative” number to the board.

“Negative numbers mean we have more seats available than students to fill them,” he said. “The 7th and 8th grades are the only places you see a deviation in this trend, and we can work with schools to create those seats.”

Because schools operate on per-pupil funding, empty seats amount to lost dollars, especially when it comes to fixed costs like building maintenance and utilities. 

Holly Reid is the Chief of Policy and Portfolio at New Schools for New Orleans. The nonprofit group aims to improve public schooling and commissioned a demographer to study population and enrollment trends on behalf of the district.

“If we don’t have enrollment right, that affects what schools can offer,” Reid said.

“In 2016, everyone thought the city’s population, and K-12 enrollment, would increase,” she said. “We have not continued to grow as a parish and kindergarten cohorts have declined by 17 percent since then.”

Declining public school enrollment comes as the city has experienced slower population growth over the past several years. 

After New Orleans’ massive post-Katrina loss of residents, the population grew quickly in the early part of the last decade. Yearly Census estimates put the city at well over 390,000 residents, up from 343,000 in the 2010 Census. But that growth slowed as the city approached the 2020 Census. And New Orleans’ official 2020 Census count was about 384,000, 

She noted that a slower rate of people moving to New Orleans and lower birth rates have come as the city has become significantly less affordable for families, noting that housing prices have “increased incredibly” in the last five years. 

The size of an entering kindergarten class peaked in 2013, Reid said, and the 17 percent decline represents about 700 students — which she described as a healthy sized overall enrollment for one school. 

Private school kindergarten enrollment has declined even more, she said, adding that it doesn’t appear the two sectors are competing. “There are just fewer kindergarteners overall.”

“What this does — to have less kids in a school system and school building — affects the quality of programs our schools can offer,” Reid said. “If you’re under enrolled, you have fixed costs, facility maintenance, you have to keep the lights on, teachers. There are some things you can’t cut.”

That’s when cuts in arts, extracurriculars, and socio-emotional learning may start to take place, Reid said. She also said the district should improve cost sharing among its roughly 80 independent charter schools, in particular noting transportation costs, which are often the second largest line item in a school’s budget. 

Smith again highlighted the cost of running facilities. 

“The enrollment challenges greatly affect our ability to maintain and preserve facilities,” he said. 

To save money in that area, Reid said fewer facilities should be operating. That’s not an easy lift in an all-charter school district where the majority of schools have individual operating contracts with the district and come with the guarantee of a building, though not all do. (Type 1 “new start” charter schools are not guaranteed a district building. Takeover charters or charters that moved from the state-run Recovery School District back to the auspices of the district are guaranteed a district facility.)

Board member Katie Baudouin asked how OneApp, the district’s centralized enrollment lottery, may play into the district’s future decisions about which schools to close or consolidate. 

“We take into account the schools families seek,” Executive Director of Data Systems and Solutions David Hand responded. “By and large parents want quality.”

Hand said while some families want a school near their homes, the majority of families chose the highest-rated schools.

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

Smith and Lewis said the board can expect a full presentation on the proposal in January. 

Additional Implications

The enrollment decline and funding decrease could also affect other aspects of the district’s operations. Notably, pre-kindergarten spots and the charter approval and opening process. 

Board member Carlos Zervigon brought up pre-kindergarten seats, a program that many local schools offer with some state assistance.

“Most of our organizations have stretched to provide pre-k,” he said. “This is another thing that could be severely impacted because it’s not fully funded.”

For example, many schools use their K-12 funding to cover building operating expenses which essentially takes part of the cost of pre-k under the wing of the overall budget. 

Board member Olin Parker asked how the plan may affect future charter schools and Lewis answered quite directly. 

“We’re not looking for applicants that are expecting to open in the normal timeline,” Lewis said. 

That’s a major shift from prior years when the district encouraged applications to start new charter schools in anticipation of enrollment growth. Now, Lewis said, they will welcome applications, but specifically encourage applicants who want to take over an existing charter school. 

An earlier version of this story slightly misquoted OPSB member Olin Parker.

Marta Jewson

Marta Jewson covers education in New Orleans for The Lens. She began her reporting career covering charter schools for The Lens and helped found the hyperlocal news site Mid-City Messenger. Jewson returned...