By Emily Rasmussen, The Capistrano Dispatch

As Capistrano Unified School District (CUSD) sees a trend in decreasing enrollment, the district’s board of trustees is preparing to begin discussions regarding employment reduction.

As enrollment declines—a CUSD graphic projected roughly 1,000 to 2,000 or so in the next four years—CUSD revenue will also decline, which could result in reducing the number of district employees, a special meeting on Feb. 13 revealed.

“It’s actually going to come down to that in the next month. We’re going to have to make decisions on reducing the number of employees,” CUSD Board President Martha McNicholas said at the meeting. “Seriously, we are going to have to look at that. I’m hoping that our retirement incentive helps us out on that, but as trustees, we’re going to have to do some thinking about actual people and positions.”

CUSD has 49,117 students enrolled (excluding charter schools) as of August 2017, according to the school district’s website. The largest employer of South Orange County, CUSD has a total of 3,841 employees (2015-16), the website said.

“It’s not significant in that it’s about a 500 student-per-year decline,” CUSD chief communications officer Ryan Burris said.

“For the foreseeable future (we see) a decline in enrollment projections throughout the district,” Deputy Superintendent Clark Hampton said at the meeting.

The decline in student enrollment related to lower birth rates typically shows as a lower cohort size in the early grades even as the upper grades remain large, a CUSD staff report said.

At a community Coffee Chat in San Juan Capistrano on Feb. 23, CUSD board member Jim Reardon said that private schools are a factor in declining enrollment, with roughly 23 percent of the district’s student population attending private school. Although private schools haven’t seen increasing enrollment, CUSD is working to find methods to attract more students to public school, he said.

One of those methods is having full-day kindergarten, which attracts working parents. By having families enroll their students in public school early on, the more likely they’ll stay with CUSD, Reardon explained. It’s uncommon for students to transfer to public school from private school, he added.

Another reason is the cost of living in South Orange County, Burris said.

“It is difficult for people coming out of college to live here, so they will start a family elsewhere,” Burris said, referencing a report by the South Orange County Economic Coalition.

The report, which came in 2016, said that the population of South Orange County is getting older because of the “high cost of living in the region, younger families may not be able to afford to purchase homes and may move out of the region, move in with family, or choose to rent,” it read.

School district revenue is based upon average daily attendance and accounts for $8,800 per student, a CUSD graph showed. With a staffing level ratio of 32 students to one teacher—if there is a 500-student enrollment decrease with a $4.4 million revenue loss, there would be a reduction of 16 teachers with a reduced cost of $1.6 million—and despite a declining, concurrent ratio, there would still be a total net loss of $2.8 million, according to the graph.

“The rule of thumb that school district’s use is that when you’re increasing in enrollment, revenue comes in faster than you need it,” Hampton said. “When you’re declining in enrollment, you lose revenue faster than you can make cuts to accommodate it.”

More than 200 teachers packed the Capistrano Unified School District’s Board of Trustees meeting on Nov. 8 to draw attention to failed contract negotiations between CUSD and the Capistrano Unified Education Association. Photo: Allison Jarrell
More than 200 teachers packed the Capistrano Unified School District’s Board of Trustees meeting on Nov. 8 to draw attention to failed contract negotiations between CUSD and the Capistrano Unified Education Association. Photo: Allison Jarrell

The discussion of possibly reducing CUSD employees comes one month after the district and the teachers union reached a tentative contract agreement—approved at the Feb. 13 meeting—which “will provide the stability of a three-year contract,” Burris said in a press statement.

The agreement also provides teachers a 1 percent ongoing salary increase retroactive to 2016-17, a further 1 percent this year, and a 1 percent contingent increase for the 2018-19 school year, relying on full implementation of the governor’s budget proposal on Jan. 10, the agreement said. The district will set aside an additional $2.2 million toward health and welfare benefits if the final adopted state budget is not reduced, Burris said.

The declining enrollment will not affect the agreement with the teachers union, Burris said.

In hopes that alternatives such as early retirement incentives which the board passed at the same meeting—incentives eligible to 585 employees for tax-qualified annuity based on total district contributions of either 80 percent or 85 percent of their final year salary—will gradually reduce district staff and alleviate the decision of cutting district employees.

“Typically, with enrollment declines, you would have retirements of teachers and that would cover the need to reduce the number of teachers that you need to cover the new students the following years, since you have fewer students,” Hampton said. “That’s referred to as almost an automatic reduction.”

CUSD Superintendent Kirsten Vital added that another reason the district faces difficulties in revenue is that CUSD has one of the lowest funding per student, due to the state’s Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF).

“The reality is the state’s not going to change the LCFF anytime soon,” Vital said. “We knew this was coming and I think it’s better to plan ahead and phase this in, as opposed to being caught with a significant structural deficit and sort of be back in the days that CUSD and other districts were in 2008-09, where it became kind of a bad-bash panic about how you do this kind of work.”

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