With four decades as a public school administrator, Dallas ISD superintendent Michael Hinojosa has learned that patience is important when it comes to student enrollment numbers.
On Tuesday, a day after The Dallas Morning News highlighted the district’s current enrollment woes, Hinojosa said that DISD’s forecast was cloudy, but that didn’t mean a storm wasn’t necessarily on the way.
While the district would have to hustle to draw back its youngest students in prekindergarten, Hinojosa said he expected most students to slowly come back to the school, especially once in-person classes resumed in the coming weeks. And help would likely be on the way from any number of avenues if the district suffered funding losses that were created by lower enrollment.
One thing definitely not in the forecast, Hinojosa said, was staff cuts.
“It does make it a little more cloudy, but we’re early — Day 5 — and the clouds are going to break,” he said.
Enrollment trends across the country and the district’s difficulty in distributing technology to all of its students contributed to Dallas seeing a dramatic drop in enrollment. At the end of last week — the first week of classes in DISD — the district’s enrollment was down by almost 12% from original projections. Those projections are used to determine everything from budgets to staffing.
If the district’s enrollment wasn’t made right, a decline of 15,000 students would mean tens of millions of dollars less in state funding, which is largely based on attendance.
Hinojosa was clear, though, that any effort to address budget shortfalls brought on by lower attendance would not include layoffs. In his previous stint as the Dallas superintendent, Hinojosa laid off hundreds of teachers and staff in 2008 to close an $84 million budget shortfall.
“I can unequivocally say we’re not going to have a [reduction-in-force],” Hinojosa said.
Hinojosa said he wasn’t shocked by the low student turnout. It’s been common for major urban districts across America and Texas to experience much lower enrollment to start the year, he said, with the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbating those trends.
The district’s technology distribution added another layer of complexity, Hinojosa said. Nearly 10% of students still don’t have a school-issued device, which could account for a large portion of those missing students since attendance is collected by logging on to virtual classes, according to the district.
The biggest stumbling block to getting closer to projections could be early learning, he said. When comparing pre-K enrollment from the end of last week with the fourth day of instruction from 2019-20, the size of DISD’s early learning program was smaller by more than 37%, almost 4,500 students.
Over the past few years, the district — under the leadership of assistant superintendent Derek Little — has made big strides in outreach to bring students into the early learning program. But that type of canvassing, going from door to door to talk to parents, is “very difficult right now,” Hinojosa said.
Additionally, parents are nervous about sending 3-, 4-, or 5-year-olds into schools and expecting them to follow all safety protocols, he said.
Hinojosa expects somewhere around 140,000 to 145,000 students to attend school virtually once technology issues are ironed out, with more students showing up after campuses reopen.
When asked whether he thought the district was at risk for losing students to surrounding districts and charter operators, Hinojosa said “it’s something to think about, but not necessarily worrying about,” since many surrounding districts and most charter operators haven’t returned to in-person instruction yet.
Trustee Dan Micciche said late Monday night that the district would “just keep plugging away, leaving no stone unturned. We have to reach all of our kids.”
The district’s current plan, if Dallas County’s case numbers don’t worsen, are for certain grades to start in-person instruction on Sept. 28, with campuses open for everyone by Oct. 5.
The current picture from the district’s parent survey, Hinojosa said, was that 50% of parents plan to send their children back for face-to-face instruction.
“As things are safe, and more districts open up, then we’re going to find more students,” he said.
Hinojosa was also equally optimistic when it came to the district’s financial picture.
The Texas Education Agency’s decision to allow school districts to receive funding for the first 12 weeks based on previous years’ projected attendance figures gave the district a cushion, he said.
From that point, Hinojosa said that help could come from a variety of different sources, including the upcoming legislative session and the federal government after November’s general election. The district could also offset losses with its “rainy day fund,” an unassigned fund balance hovers around $600 million.
“If it’s not raining now, when is it going to rain?” he said.
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