Houston ISD faces $60M deficit as enrollment declines by 20,000

Friday, February 17, 2023
13 Investigates: HISD enrollment plummets by 20K students and counting
The loss of thousands of students in HISD is creating a budget bind for the district, whose funding is dependent on enrollment numbers.

HOUSTON (KTRK) -- Joshua Allmon's youngest child was born in 2019, just months before the pandemic prompted social distancing and shut down businesses across the state.

When schools went to remote learning in 2020, Allmon noticed his older children adapted quickly but missed the social element of school.

"They were tired of the little laptops," he said. "They were ready to be in class with their friends on the playground, running around and being kids."

Now, Allmon said he wants to make sure his 3-year-old doesn't fall behind.

Earlier this month, he filled out paperwork for his son during an enrollment event at Neff Early Learning Center as part of Houston Independent School District's efforts to attract more students to its campuses.

13 Investigates found there are 20,724 fewer students enrolled at HISD now compared to when the pandemic hit during the 2019-20 school year. There are currently 189,337 enrolled.

Michael Love, the executive officer of HISD's Innovation and Strategic Initiatives, told 13 Investigates that he doesn't expect enrollment to bounce back to pre-pandemic totals, in part, due to declining birth rates and charter schools.

"Over the next 20 years we may lose another 20,000, 30,000 students. We may be at 150,000 in 10 years. It's hard to know, but we are at least predicting a decrease over the foreseeable future," Love said.

The worst declines are at elementary schools, where there are 15,247 fewer students in those younger grades across the district.

Our investigation found some campuses lost more than a third of their student enrollment, and enrollment at 85% of HISD districts is down, prompting the district to consider campus consolidation and closures in the coming years.

INTERACTIVE: Want to know what enrollment is like at your Houston ISD campus? Explore the map below. Red dots indicate campuses whose enrollment is down compared to before the pandemic began. Blue dots indicate an increase in enrollment. On mobile device? Click here for a full-screen experience.

In Texas, the amount of funding a district receives is based on student enrollment and attendance. With HISD estimating between $5,000 and $6,000 per student, that means the district is expected to lose $124 million from its pre-pandemic budget.

"It's a tremendous amount," Love said. "We're really looking at, over the next year, a $60 million deficit and that deficit is going to continue growing, as we look at projected enrollment where we're going to be projected to decrease over the next 10 years. We'll have very difficult decisions that we have to make as a district as far as staffing, as far as campus options, but that is at least going to be done with community input and ensuring that we at least communicate this and engage families to see what will be best suited so that they feel comfortable and feel like HISD is their first choice."

HISD isn't alone in its enrollment declines.

Our investigation found statewide, there were 66,570 fewer students enrolled in public schools during the 2021-22 school year compared to the 2019-20 year when nearly 5.5 million students were enrolled.

Statewide enrollment data for the current 2022-23 school year was not available from the Texas Education Agency. But, 13 Investigates reached out to nearly 40 public school districts in Harris, Fort Bend, Galveston and Brazoria Counties to learn more about current enrollment trends in this region.

INTERACTIVE: 13 Investigates asked public school districts in Harris, Found Bend, Galveston, and Brazoria counties for the number of students enrolled during the current 2022-23 school year. The red indicates districts that saw an enrollment decline and blue are districts that saw an increase in enrollment. On mobile device? Click here for a full-screen experience.

There are some suburban districts that have actually seen an increase in enrollment.

Lamar Consolidated Independent School District has 22% more students this school year compared to the 2019-20 year when it had 35,156 students enrolled.

Enrollment at Tomball ISD is also up 18%, with 21,565 students for the 2022-23 year.

But, our investigation found more than half of Houston-area districts are experiencing an enrollment decline.

In Houston, Love said the district is conscious of the cost of living.

"It's doubled really over the last 10 years with a lot of families moving out of the Houston zone," Love said. "When we have exit surveys for our students who are leaving, a lot - the majority of the families who really respond to that state that they're leaving because of the cost of living here in Houston."

The decline means districts like HISD will be forced to consider campus closures.

Love said this could include asking voters to decide on a new bond to build new facilities and closing schools.

"We're going to be bringing this to our board, to our communities to have this discussion. We have the reality. We have to make cuts," Love said. "There are going to be cuts along the line as far as financially. It's just based on enrollment and enrollment drives our funding."

Despite the declines, Love said HISD is getting creative in offering more tours of campuses and launching an enrollment unit that travels throughout the community. The unit is a large van equipped with 10 iPads where parents can enroll their children.

The district says it is already seeing some positive signs. Last year, Love said HISD had just 9,000 applicants for its pre-Kindergarten and early childhood program, but this year the district has received more than 12,000 applications.

"We're going to have to start evolving what we do as far as a practice here in HISD to meet the needs and evolving needs of our communities," he said.

Despite students disappearing from schools during the pandemic, Allmon, who recently enrolled his 3-year-old, reminds parents it's important to introduce their children to education early.

"Sometimes we don't kind of realize it until it's too late," Allmon said. "When your kid is in middle school, and they're having social problems or making friends or the stresses of school and everything, it's not too late, but it would've been a problem that you can work proactively on if they were younger and you get them socially in a different environment where they can socialize with other kids."

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