Declining enrollment, state funding putting a strain on local school district

By Jeff Harrison
Midwest City Beacon

Mid-Del School Superintendent Rick Cobb provided a grim report on the district’s finances during the school board’s monthly meeting on Dec. 14.

Cobb said declining enrollment and state aid are putting a squeeze on district finances and creating uncertainty for the future.  Enrollment dropped by about 3,000 students compared to last school year, which has led to lost revenue for the child nutrition department, and the amount of state aid the district receives.

During the school board presentation, Cobb ran through the general fund, building fund and child nutrition fund, which have all seen losses.

The district is currently projecting a sharp decline in the end of the year carryover for the general fund, which provides the bulk of operational expenses. Cobb said the district typically maintains a carryover of about $8-9 million, but currently projects it to be about $3.1 million.

One of the biggest concerns with the budget is the child nutrition fund, which has been hit hard due to school closures and declining enrollment. The fund lost more than $1 million in revenue last school year and is projected to take an additional $2 million hit this year. Expenses have decreased the past couple of years, but much of those are fixed costs for employees.

Cobb said the child nutrition budget is on track to finish the year $1.1 million in the negative.

“This problem is probably not unique to Mid-Del but we’re having a lot of trouble with this,” he said.

The state funding formula is primarily based on student enrollment. It allows districts to count their highest enrollment over the past three years for state funding. If the district had to use this year’s enrollment of 11,044 students, Cobb said they would lose about $11 million in state funding. He said there have been some talks about changing the state aid formula and urged the school board and others to speak against it.

“It’s important for us to articulate with our legislative delegation what the impact of changing the state aid formula in a very bad fiscal year would be on districts like Mid-Del and others surrounding us,” Cobb said.

Another piece of the problem is declining state tax revenue. Lower than expected tax dollars could force the state legislature to declare a revenue failure, which would reduce funding levels for education.

Cobb said the district lost almost $1 million during last year’s mid-term adjustment, and this year’s number could be 40-50% higher if a revenue failure is declared.

Mid-Del’s enrollment was consistently over 15,000 students before the May 3, 1999 tornado destroyed several homes and businesses in the area. Cobb said the enrollment has stayed consistently between 14,100 and 14,500 over the past couple of decades. The district had 14,207 students on Oct. 1, 2019 and 11,044 on Oct. 1, 2020. The state uses Oct. 1 as the official enrollment numbers for funding purposes.

The district continues to see students return to school every week. Many of them are returning from Epic Schools or other virtual charter schools, but several were not enrolled in school this year.

“As much as I am worried about money, I’m worried about that group of kids we haven’t seen and who haven’t been in any school,” Cobb said.

Cobb is not sure if or when the enrollment will rebound following the pandemic but said they must strive to have appropriate staffing levels.

“Every year there is a certain amount of uncertainty, but we can’t afford to be staffed for a high enrollment and have a lower enrollment for another year,” he said. “But we also don’t want to be staffed so low that when kids come back, we’re scrambling to find teachers. Both would inefficient.”

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