Recess is quieter on the playground sandwiched between the Leadership Academy at Como Elementary and Como Montessori School.
Como Montessori sits silent, shuttered in May because of low enrollment — a harbinger of what could happen across Fort Worth ISD as the district grapples with falling enrollment and a looming financial crisis.
The former school at the corner of Littlepage Street and Goodman Avenue behind Como Elementary was among 38 campuses that lost more than 25% of enrolled students between 2011 and 2021, according to a Fort Worth Report analysis of publicly available enrollment data from the Texas Education Agency.
As the district, already facing tough financial times, deals with the effects of losing 18% of its enrollment — or nearly one out of five students — in six years, more schools could follow Como Montessori’s footsteps, national school finance experts from Georgetown University told the Report.
Enrollment in Fort Worth ISD has been in decline since 2016, when it had a high of 87,428 students. The district had 71,978 students on Aug. 24, according to figures the Report obtained through an open records request.
That falling enrollment will hit hard in a district confronting a $40 million deficit in its general fund budget, a loss of almost $53 million in state revenue and having to send excess property tax revenue to the state.
Enrollment serves as the foundation for many financial decisions a school district makes. In Texas, the amount of funding districts receive depends on the number of students attending schools. Districts receive a base allotment of $6,160 per student. The state determines how much funding districts receive based on the average daily attendance of students.
In three years, Fort Worth ISD lost more than a third of its funding from the state. The 2022-23 budget has more than $262.8 million in state funding — the smallest amount Fort Worth ISD has received since before 2011. The district’s share of state funding hit a high of $392.4 million in 2019 after a school finance reform law went into effect.
Part of how Fort Worth ISD is making ends meet is using its $261.6 million in federal stimulus funds, called Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief funds. Chief Financial Officer Carmen Arrieta-Candelaria told trustees in July the one-time federal funds — which expire in 2024 — will be used to balance the budget over the next few years.
Additionally, administrators have said they plan to dip into the district’s $281.4 million fund balance.
Chad Aldeman is a policy director at Georgetown University’s Edunomics Lab, a research center focused on school finance. All of these decisions do not add up to sound financial health for Fort Worth ISD, Aldeman said.
In fact, he said, it is delaying the inevitable: Closing under-enrolled schools.
“For a district like Fort Worth that was losing students before the pandemic, the ESSER money gave them almost a reprieve so they didn’t have to make some of those hard decisions,” Aldeman told the Report. “They’re using that money to delay those — and sometimes make them even worse.”
‘Live within our means’
Enrollment and attendance have been on board President Tobi Jackson’s mind since May. At the time, she asked administration to provide information about how enrollment and attendance have changed in the district.
Four months later, she still has not received the information, she said.
In a late September interview, the Report showed Jackson a 10-year analysis of district enrollment. She was surprised to see how many schools have lost students in the past decade.
The enrollment decline is concerning for Jackson. Those worries, though, are compounded with the district’s financial constraints. In October, the school board and administration plan to begin looking at the budget line by line to determine where further cuts can be made. Nearly $43 million was cut from the 2022-23 general fund budget.
Jackson now plans to direct administrators to begin an analysis of attendance and enrollment so the school board and community can begin to examine whether schools are currently used for the right purposes. She estimates the analysis to take about three months to complete and could be ready in December.
Additionally, she said, she plans to establish a committee to examine Fort Worth ISD’s enrollment decline and attendance.
Jackson is open to any decisions, including closing schools, that may need to be made after the district’s analysis is completed. She said the decisions, though, must be focused on one group: the students.
She suggested the school board could, as she describes it, “mothball schools” — temporarily close campuses, move students to other schools and wait for enrollment to stabilize across the district.
“The reason you hesitate to do that is very simply: schools are the core of the community,” Jackson said.
Fort Worth ISD already has plans to close some campuses. Several elementary schools are expected to be folded into three new campuses with 1,000-student capacities in the Stop Six, Eastern Hills and South Hills communities. The first of the new schools will open starting in 2026.
In recent years, the district also has permanently closed schools and consolidated campuses. Besides Como Montessori, administrators shuttered MG Ellis Elementary and folded some sixth-grade centers into middle schools. The moves are expected to save $7 million annually, according to officials.
Fort Worth ISD faces a demographic paradox: As enrollment dwindles, the number of people living inside the district has increased. Since 2011, Fort Worth ISD’s population grew 18% to 543,738, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
However, the number of children 5 and younger decreased, Census figures show. Between 2010 and 2020, the number of residents 5 and younger dropped 4% to 38,251.
Jackson acknowledged Fort Worth ISD’s financial reality will play a major role in deciding whether more campuses need to be closed.
“We live within our means,” Jackson said.
‘More success when districts are very transparent’
Aldeman, with the Edunomics Lab, acknowledged that closing schools is a hard decision for education leaders. All decisions must focus on students, he said. Schools are centers of communities and have lots of employees.
Closing campuses can be disruptive for students, Aldeman said. However, research shows evidence that if districts are proactive and support students, give them good options and follow them as they move schools, students can have a successful transition, Aldeman said.
If school closures are on the table, the school board and district need to be transparent about the process, Alderman said. That means communicating with the broader Fort Worth ISD community about what is happening and why closures are needed, he added.
“The cuts are painful. To shrink your footprints in terms of either buildings or staff, those are not pleasant conversations to have,” Aldeman said. “But we’ve seen more success when districts are very transparent and clear about those numbers and what they require the district to do.”
Fort Worth ISD has nearly 11,000 employees. Almost 5,200 employees are teachers. Personnel is 83% of the district’s $819.5 million budget.
Closing schools means possibly cutting jobs and saving additional dollars that could be used elsewhere in the district. This is just part of the consequences of declining enrollment that the public may not understand, Edunomics Lab Associate Director Laura Anderson said.
Anderson believes now is a good time to begin talking about whether schools need to close.
“Districts are really buoyed with the ESSER money — if they need to use it in productive ways,” she said.
The stimulus dollars could act as a bridge to a leaner school district that better fits a smaller enrollment, Anderson said. The money has to be used wisely, she advised.
For example, nearly half of Fort Worth ISD’s $261 million ESSER funds are planned to be used on personnel. Hiring additional staff may not be the best use of these one-time funds, Anderson said.
Districts like Fort Worth ISD that have been shrinking tend to not reduce staffing, Aldeman said. Fort Worth ISD’s number of teachers has remained somewhat stagnant in recent years.
As the school board worked on the budget, trustee Camille Rodriguez expressed concern about staffing levels not correlating to the district’s enrollment decline.
“We shouldn’t have the same number of teachers or support staff if we have less students,” Rodriguez said in May.
National, state enrollment down
Fort Worth ISD is not alone in seeing a drop in students. Across the nation, education leaders are dealing with enrollment decreases, including in Colorado and Indiana where officials have introduced school closure plans.
Lower birth rates, fewer immigrants, demographic shifts, an aging American population and increased competition from charter schools have likely fueled decreases across the nation, according to the Edunomics Lab. The COVID-19 pandemic has played a part in enrollment declines, but many trends were taking place before 2020.
Enrollment across the nation has fallen and has not returned to pre-pandemic levels. In fall 2021, 49.5 million students were enrolled in public schools across the country. In 2019, 50.8 million students were enrolled.
Some districts have rebounded, but others have not, Aldeman said. Research Aldeman has read suggests enrollment bounce backs may be tied to how long a district stayed in remote learning during the early days of the pandemic.
“The longer the district stayed remote, the less likely they were to rebound in enrollment,” he said.
Enrollment in Texas also has not returned to pre-pandemic figures, according to the Texas Education Agency. In the 2021-22 academic year, 5.4 million students were enrolled in Texas public schools. Texas had nearly 5.5 million students in the 2019-20 school year — the highest enrollment recorded in the state’s history.
Although enrollment often is the linchpin for school funding across the U.S., fewer parents have heard about the declines in student population than those who know about national teacher shortages, according to a survey that polling firm Morning Consult conducted in August.
Kindergarten offers peek into future
When Como Montessori was closed, only five students were enrolled in the school’s kindergarten. The decline, though, started long before the school was shuttered.
In the past decade, kindergarten enrollment dropped more than 88%. The campus had 43 kindergarten students in the 2011-12 school year, according to TEA enrollment records. Even the 2011-12 enrollment dropped compared to the 2003-03 school year, the oldest publicly available enrollment data with the TEA.
The handful of students was a sign of troubling times ahead for the school and played a factor in administrators’ decision to close the campus.
Kindergarten is an indicator of things to come for entire school districts, too. Students tend to stay with one district longer if they attended early grades there, Aldeman said.
The number of kindergarteners attending Fort Worth ISD schools dropped nearly 27% between 2011 and 2021. Fewer kindergarteners means fewer overall students as they move onto higher grade levels.
For example, Fort Worth ISD had 7,304 students in kindergarten in 2011. In the 2020-21 school year, those students were in the ninth grade. That group lost 13.1% of students as it progressed through school.
In the 2020-21 school year, Fort Worth ISD had 5,340 kindergarten students.
Kindergarten was not the only grade to have seen a drop in enrollment in the past decade. First through seventh grades saw decreases. The largest drop was among first-graders, which saw a nearly 30% decline.
However, the number of students in the eighth through 12th grades increased during that time period.
Those groups of students that saw growth in the past decade will soon graduate, leaving Fort Worth ISD with classes that will shrink in the coming years.
Districts across the country have tried strategies to bring students back, the Edunomics Lab’s Aldeman said.
In Houston ISD, counselors knocked on doors of students who had not returned to school. Still, the largest school district in Texas faces a $31 million deficit — $9 million smaller than Fort Worth ISD’s.
Results have been mixed, Aldeman said.
“Those are, sometimes, good ideas and good strategies to compete,” he said. “But they can also be delaying some of the inevitable financial pain.”
Fort Worth ISD is attempting to lure students back from charter schools, which have seen nearly 16,000 transfers from Fort Worth ISD.
Enrollment almost certainly has shifted since the Report’s records request in August. A better picture of where enrollment stands will emerge in October.
That is when all school districts in the state will report their enrollment to the Texas Education Agency. The reported numbers will serve as the district’s official enrollment in state records.
Jackson, the school board president, expects the district to begin its attendance analysis after snapshot day. She foresees the analysis looking at ZIP codes and high school feeder patterns.
On top of that, she wants administrators to hear from the community about why so many students have left Fort Worth ISD and find solutions to get children back in their desks and make recess loud again.
Take a closer look at the Fort Worth Report’s analysis of enrollment in Fort Worth ISD. The chart below includes the enrollment for all 140 campuses in the district for every year between 2011 and 2021. Additionally, the chart includes the percentage change during that 10-year period and notes about certain campuses.
Jacob Sanchez is an enterprise journalist for the Fort Worth Report. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.