The Palo Alto Unified School District board unanimously approved three recommendations to address declining enrollment at last Tuesday’s meeting.
These recommendations, created by the Enrollment Trends and Options Ad Hoc Committee, include: inviting full-time Palo Alto City employees to enroll their children in PAUSD, reducing the full-time equivalent — a standardized measure of employee workload — required for PAUSD employees to enroll their children in PAUSD from 80% to 75% and notifying families of school placements no later than five days before the start of school.
An increase in enrollment is necessary to reduce the number of combination classes, which are mixed grade classes, and the immediate need to close schools, Superintendent Don Austin said. Higher enrollment also allows schools to offer more electives and extracurricular programs.
“When it starts to get smaller you start losing sections of electives because there just aren’t enough kids to go around and give you the breadth of programs that we enjoy here,” Austin said at the meeting.
In response to declining enrollment, school closures have already started happening in the area, with Cupertino Union School District closing three schools last year and Ravenswood City School District closing two elementary schools in 2020.
“It is a reflection of declining birth rates and declining population in the Bay Area,” PAUSD Board President Jennifer DiBrienza said at the meeting. “Our decline looks just like all the other districts in the area.”
Given that Palo Alto has plans to add over 6,000 housing units by 2031, closing schools now may just result in schools being reopened again a few years down the line, DiBrienza said, which would be more disruptive than keeping schools open.
“It feels like at this point it makes more sense to sort of stay the course and watch that housing get built and see where the populations are,” DiBrienza said. “If we didn’t have 6,000 units coming then I think that we would all be saying, ‘Wow, this is really hard and disruptive but we just need to close some schools.’”
The FTE policy was revised due to a disparity between teachers and classified staff; at some elementary schools, it’s difficult for teachers to have an FTE of 80% or higher.
The board will vote annually on whether to permit new students from city employees to be offered enrollment. Students already enrolled through the city agreement will stay in PAUSD unless their parent or guardian stops working for the city.
“If there was sort of unanimity in anything it was teachers, principals, everybody saying ‘We don’t want combo classes,’” said Board Member Jesse Ladomirak, who was on the ad hoc committee. “So … we just have to have enough tools to allow staff to make that work.