Delaware public schools worry about staffing levels with lower enrollment

With student enrollment down in Delaware’s public schools, the units — i.e., educational staff — could also take a hit.

“Anytime [enrollment] goes down, it creates that potential that you could see schools getting less funding and there being less positions,” said Jeff Taschner, executive director for the Delaware State Education Association. “We have been talking with, and we’re continuing to talk with, the state to try to come up with a compromise or a solution to address that this year, because, I think, everybody recognizes that the decline in enrollment this year is kind of out of the ordinary.”

This year, the state of Delaware saw a 2,407-student decrease between the 2019-20 and 2020-21 academic year, which impacted most districts. Enrollment hasn’t declined in at least 10 years in the state.

Units are calculated based on the total enrollment in each school district. Usually that enrollment data is completed as of the last day in September (it’s been known as the “Sept. 30 count”), but this year, the process was postponed until mid-November.

“The concern is that now that you’ve got lower numbers, lower units. If we don’t figure out some way to address that, we’re going to have less personnel,” Mr. Taschner said.

“…The educators that are working in the current environment, and are having to do both in-person and remote learning, are doing some amazing work, and are really pushing themselves. I would worry that if we lose personnel, we’re really going to hurt our ability to try to meet the needs of the students in this time which is really unlike anything anybody’s dealt with before.”

While the unit count is conducted in the fall, in the spring, districts complete an estimated unit count process, where, based on enrollment trends, the state guarantees to fund 98% of those units for the following year.

This year, four districts (Milford, New Castle County Vo-Tech, Polytech and Smyrna) earned above their projected unit counts.

“I honestly can’t remember the last time that somebody hasn’t, but this year is unlike anything anybody’s seen before because of the pandemic,” Mr. Taschner said.

For Capital School District, the district’s enrollment fell by 262 students, Mary Cooke, human resources director, said at a November school board meeting. With that, there has been a reduction in about 22 units from the year previous.

In Capital, the “98% rule” guaranteed them 574.77 units for this academic year, even though they only earned 559.32 based on enrollment as of mid-November.

“I have kept us staffed at that number [574.77] going into this fall,” Ms. Cooke told the school board in November. “We don’t have an answer yet from the state on how they’re going to fund us for the 2020-21 school year. There’s been various options. However, it is in the code that we would get a minimum of our 98% guarantee.”

Districts and charters will engage in the same estimation process in April, she said.

“What I will be doing is obviously looking at where we are now, but I’m also going to be looking very hard at: where are we in March?” she said. “Because my hope is we’ll have more students coming back to us in the spring. Assuming that’s the case, those are the numbers that — I’m at least going to argue to the Department of Education — paint the best picture for us.”

While Mr. Taschner and DSEA think about this year, other school officials are looking ahead to next year.

In Capital, typically about 25 people retire from the district or move out of the district each year, Ms. Cooke said.

“Right now, I believe we could, worst case scenario, absorb those 22 [units] through attrition,” she said.

“If we are given any kind of directive from the state level that we have to reduce spending as we’ve been ordered in previous years to do, my guess is we would have to touch staff,” Ms. Cooke added. “But my hope is, again, right now, I’m comfortable it would happen through our normal attrition moving forward.”

Indian River School District went from 10,942 students last year to 10,592 this year, a decrease of 350 students and about 23 units.

Indian River spokesman David Maull said, in analyzing the reasons for the decrease in enrollment, that next year is when the brunt of unit count could be felt.

“This year’s unit count reduction will likely come into play next year when it comes to staffing,” he said. “However, it’s somewhat premature to speculate on that because we don’t yet know the regulations the state will require us to follow in regards to the unit count and anticipated staffing needs for next year.”

Lake Forest School District’s enrollment dropped from 3,721 to 3,505 in a year, a loss of 216 students, which resulted in almost 10 units in reduction.

The 98% rule meant 249 units were coming to Lake Forest this year, no matter what happened with the unit count, said Travis Moorman, HR director for Lake Forest. However, enrollment this year ended up putting the district within a fraction of that figure anyway.

“We anticipated, because of the pandemic, that we would probably see significantly less number of kids come into kindergarten,” Mr. Moorman said. “So we made some adjustments across the district.”

With “creative funding” — money from the state related to the pandemic, for example — the district was able to get its Division I units down to what they ended up earning this year, putting them in “pretty good shape for staffing for the rest of the year,” he said.

“If it weren’t for some of these other resources that we have flexibility to use sometimes, it could be a much grimmer picture when it comes to just Division I,” he added.

When Gov. John Carney put together a budget for Fiscal Year 2021, a worldwide pandemic wasn’t part of the equation. When the budget was actually approved, the state essentially rolled the previous budget over, not funding beyond what was required.

“I think … we probably need to push for a second year rollover. That is a better way to handle the situation because, I think we all agree, this year’s unit count really wasn’t the greatest because of the pandemic,” Capital Interim Assistant Superintendent Adewunmi Kuforiji said at the November school board meeting. “The current year informs a lot of things for the next year. If we get judged by this year, it’s going to be a problem.”

Mr. Taschner noted that educators realized that this year would be unique because of the pandemic.

“Now that we have these [unit count] numbers I think, we’re still trying to work with other folks to figure out if there’s a solution that can prevent this from negatively impacting what we’re trying to do in the current year,” he said. “I simply don’t know where that will end up, but we are talking with people and we’re trying to work with them to see if there’s something that can be done.”

Staff writer Brooke Schultz can be reached at 741-8272 or bschultz@newszap.com.