In the coming weeks, New Orleans school officials will present the first steps of a plan to “right-size” the NOLA Public Schools district — which could include school closures and consolidations — something schools Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. says is necessary to ensure the all-charter district’s schools can continue operating sustainably and with extracurricular activities.
New Orleans charter schools expanded rapidly over the past 15 years as the city recovered from Hurricane Katrina, and in particular over the last 10 years, when officials expected a much larger population increase than what materialized. The expansion included the opening of dozens of new charter schools. Now, officials say, many schools are under enrolled, putting a crunch on their per-pupil funded budgets.
At an Orleans Parish School Board meeting earlier this month, district officials 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.
“This work is about the students and viability of our school system,” Lewis told board members. “Knowing our revenues are going down, we need to make sure our kids are taken care of.”
KIPP New Orleans Schools CEO Rhonda Kalifey-Aluise said she’s experienced under-enrollment across her charter network, which operates nine schools.
“It’s really hard to run an inefficient building — you just end up wasting resources,” she said.
But it’s not a new trend, she added.
“This started several years ago,” she said in an interview earlier this month. “I worry people will think this is pandemic or Ida-related if they are not digging in.”
Though there has been demand for enrollment in seventh and eighth grade, Kalifey-Aluise said KIPP is beginning to see unfilled seats even in those grades.
A Decentralized District
Crescent City Schools CEO Kate Mehok, who runs three charter schools, said the unique, all-charter district requires unique solutions.
“The challenge of a system of charters is you still want to open new schools because you want to innovate, but you don’t want to have too many seats because then you have under-enrolled schools,” she said.
New Orleans’ decentralized school district includes about 80 independent charter schools — managed by nonprofit boards — operating across the city, most in buildings owned by the elected Orleans Parish School Board. Many of those buildings have undergone FEMA-funded renovations or been rebuilt entirely — but not all.
Mehok thinks building quality could be a good starting point for Lewis’ “right-sizing” decision-making moving forward.
“We need to come up with some priorities. Maybe we say we want to get every student in a building that’s been repaired with FEMA money,” she said. “If we believe in equity, which I know we say we do, maybe that’s something we need to talk about.”
One of the ideas put forth by Lewis’ administration is co-locating small schools in large buildings. It’s something the district has done before and could encourage schools to consider moving forward. Schools have consistent operating costs — such as utilities and insurance — regardless of their enrollment. But their funding is based on enrollment, making co-locating and larger schools more financially feasible.
Mehok said schools can operate with slightly under-enrolled classes, but it becomes more difficult as the gap between enrollment and capacity increases.
“If you do three classes of 20 and you’re at 55, it’s not the worst. But if you’re at 45… you’re not maximizing the amount of kids in your building. You’re still paying your staff the same, building operating costs. … Your expenses are the same,” she said.
Schools are funded on a per-pupil basis from state and local revenue. In a major tourism destination like New Orleans, a significant portion of sales tax collections are dependent on hospitality and food service, which ground to a halt as much of the country, and the world, has sheltered at home to try to stem the spread of the coronavirus. The recent surge of the highly contagious omicron variant, which has skyrocketed in recent weeks, has likely only further impacted those collections and future school funding.
Even if the tourism industry rebounds, schools won’t get revenues right away, 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.
Federal pandemic relief funding — like the $13,2 billion Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund passed last year as part of the CARES Act — has helped somewhat, but school leaders worry about what comes next.
“The ESSER money is giving everyone a little padding this year but it’s an economic crisis and an academic crisis because you’re not able to effectively use your resources,” Kalifey-Aluise said.
“We’re in this weird boat where we’re not full but we’re not under enrolled enough to make any changes, i.e. closures, etc.,” she said.
“If I look at a K-8 that’s under 500 [students], I’d be looking to partner with someone outside or look internally to see if I had two buildings,” she said. “We’re not there this year, but it makes it hard because you have less levers to pull. We’re definitely open to partnering with others.”
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 told OPSB members this month.
“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,
Reid 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 represents the size of an average, well-enrolled school.
Private school kindergarten enrollment has declined even more, she said, indicating that it doesn’t appear the two sectors are competing.
“There are just fewer kindergarteners overall.”
Mehok said her charter school network started to see this trend years ago. The network has seen growth in its schools on the city’s West Bank following a consolidation. But it has had to adjust its enrollment targets at its East Bank school, Akili Academy, which is competing with a larger number of nearby charter schools.
In 2019, Crescent City Schools expanded its Harriet Tubman campus on the city’s West Bank when two nearby schools were set for closure by the district.
“When we suggested expansion to the district at Tubman it was because Fischer [Elementary] and McDonogh 32 were closing. We knew there were families that went to those schools on the West Bank, and we could provide those seats,” she said.
Paul Habans Charter School, one of the group’s schools on the West Bank, has grown on reputation, she said. But Akili, which is surrounded by competing schools, has not experienced the same growth.
“The challenge at Akili is the challenge everyone is facing on the east bank — there started to be a lot fewer kindergarteners,” she said. “But on the east bank, Akili is surrounded by five schools within a mile.”
“We had to do some rightsizing at Akili a couple of years ago. And now we’re filling our kindergarten because we’re not asking for 80 kindergarteners,” she said. “If you haven’t filled your kindergarten in the last couple years then you’re probably not filling it next year, you need to think about it.”
Mehok said she thinks co-locating is a good option for small schools. Asked about possible closure, Mehok said that’s not something her network is considering.
“That’s always an option. That’s probably one you only do if you think you cannot financially sustain your school. Most of the time you are running a school you really believe in and the only reason you’d do that is because it got so bad financially,” she said. “I still think there’s a place for some of our small schools to cohabitate.”
“Unless you are deliberately trying to be small, and you have a model, it’s really hard to run a small school,” she said.
Lewis’ team is set to present the beginning of a right-sizing plan in mid-January.