Manhattan Beach school enrollment down 8 percent due to pandemic

Source: Manhattan Beach Unified School District

by Mark McDermott 

The Manhattan Beach Unified School District school board began its budget deliberations last week, and though the overall budget scenario presented was a mixed bag, one number stood out. This school year, 493 students left MBUSD. 

That sudden and steep drop in enrollment represented an 8 percent decline from last year, or 6,524 students compared to 6,031. At a budget workshop on January 20, district officials said the enrollment decline was due to  parents who opted to relocate their children to out-of-area schools that allowed in-person classroom instruction. The biggest losses have been in the district’s five elementary schools, which lost 310 students.

Superintendent Mike Matthews said the district projected some loss in enrollment but the actual number was larger than anticipated. 

“We knew it would be somewhat lower,” Matthews said. “But not this low.”  

Deputy superintendent Dawnalyn Murakawa-Leopard expressed hope that the enrollment decline is only temporary. 

“This is very much a factor that is a phenomenon of the pandemic,” Murakawa-Leopard told the school board. “And we’re hopeful that we will see many students return once we’re able to come back to sort of a regular, more typical environment. But this will have a funding impact.” 

School district funding is tied to Average Daily Attendance, so if the enrollment decline does not reverse itself post-pandemic, the loss of students will reduce the district budget by millions. The state does provide a buffer of sorts, however, allowing districts to use the higher of each two-years of enrollment for ADA calculation. This means MBUSD will have until the 2022-23 school year to recover students. 

“We are counting on two years to get most of our students back,” Matthews said. 

 Murakawa-Leopard’s projection for the 2022-23 school year showed an increase back up to 6,210 students, which would still mean less than half of those students return. 

“It’s not based on a mathematical formula,” Murakawa-Leopard said. “It’s based on us saying, ‘Okay, well, next year we think that our enrollment will be stable compared to this year. And the year after that, we think we’re going to start climbing back to where we expect it to be.’It’s based on our best guess.” 

Board member Sally Peel said she appreciated the conservative nature of Murakawa’s approach but believes more students will return. 

“Based on what I’m hearing from parents, I believe we will have a lot of our students returning next year,” Peel said. “I can’t say that I think it’ll be 80 percent; I really don’t know. But this is something that we hear about a lot, the fact that we’ve had families leaving the school district this year, and I know that’s true in all urban areas, especially urban areas where schools are primarily distance learning. But I also believe that if we are able to open in the fall with a much more typical looking school year…we’ll have at least 50 percent of our students back.” 

The immediate difficulty is that the school board will need to arrive at budget assumptions in the next two months, because by law pink slips need to be issued by March to employees laid off due to budget reductions. This difficulty is amplified by another pandemic-related loss, which is the Manhattan Beach Education Foundation’s projected $2 million decline in funding for grants that support a variety of MBUSD programs. 

MBEF executive director Hilary Mahan told the board that this year’s $7.5 million contribution to MBUSD will likely decline to $5.5 million next year. 

“We know, of course, that the declining enrollment of about 8 percent has impacted that,” Mahan said. “We’re also showing that we’re 20 percent down in our participation rate, which is resulting in about 25 percent fewer dollars… So suffice it to say, it’s unfortunate, but our MBEF funding programs are certainly going to be impacted next year. We certainly recognize that MBUSD cannot sustain programs typically funded by MBEF without funds. So we are conducting an informed analysis of our current grants to really prioritize which programs have the largest impact on all students, K through 12. This is not an easy process by any means.” 

Over half of MBEF grant monies support class size reduction. Without those funds, all district class sizes would increase by at least five students per class, while some classes would increase by as many as 10 students. MBEF grants also fund other programs, including counseling and music programs. 

Student participants in music programs gave the board impassioned testimony in hopes of saving those programs from budget cuts. Mira Costa senior Audrey Lee said that though she won’t be around to see the impact of cuts, she hopes other students can continue to receive what music gave her in her time at MBUSD. 

“You know, as a senior, I’ve done a lot of self-reflection on what made me who I am, how I got to this point in my life, and I couldn’t help but go back to music every time,” Lee said. “It’s something we all hear, the benefits —  music students, we learn how to be reliable, we learned the value of hard work. We learned how to collaborate with others just by virtue of what we do. But I think something that makes the Manhattan Beach Unified School District’s music program so special [is that] not only do we have an orchestra, a band and choir, but the community that I think all of us have found,… As cheesy as it sounds, I would like to say that we are a family.” 

Board members were visibly moved by Lee’s remarks. Board president Jennifer Fenton asked Lee to try to explain what made her music experience within the district so meaningful. 

“I think it’s a little hard to explain unless you’ve experienced it,” Lee said. “But I think every musician will know what I’m talking about when you’re sitting in the middle of a rehearsal and the music just surrounds you. You know, it’s not something that can be replicated in distance learning. It’s not something that can be replicated when you’re just taking private lessons or practicing on your own. It’s something that has to happen with a community of musicians. And that is why I love orchestra so much. You don’t have to be the best musician in the group. Even if you’re all the way in the back, you still get that experience of hearing all of the other harmonies, the different parts, the different people — they’re all so different, and yet they fit together in a way that just makes you feel like, ‘I am a part of something, and it’s something beautiful.’” 

Despite the declines in enrollment and MBEF funding, the overall budget  presented by Murakawa-Leopard appeared relatively positive for the next school year, albeit rife with uncertainties. Early projections from Governor Gavin Newsom indicated that state education funding might stave off drastic cuts, and several pandemic-related state and federal programs could result in an infusion of anything from hundreds of thousands to a few million in supplemental funding. Additionally, circumstances of the pandemic have met the many legal requirements for districts state-wide to tap into emergency reserves that are otherwise inaccessible.  

Murakawa-Leopard also pointed to longer-term trends, however, that showed increases in many costs —  including salaries, pensions, and special education —  which could mean the district will be in more dire straits three years from now. 

“This is why I feel like this year and next year are like a brief moment of reprieve in what appears to be an ongoing situation [in which] increases to costs are significantly outpacing increases to revenue,” she said. 

Board member Jennifer Cochran emphasized that there were “so many unknowns” remaining in this year’s budget that the board should be cautious in making decisions too early. 

“I think we can have a meaningful discussion right now about direction and about reserves, and sort of what our overall goals are,” she said. “But I would caution us not to get too in the weeds about cutting or adding or whatever… Because there’s so much unknown between now and when we actually do a budget.” 

Peel suggested cutting programs prematurely would be exactly the wrong thing to do for parents who are on the fence. 

“It may be a cart and horse situation here, where families that are trying to decide if they want to come back here —  that we’re doing another round of layoffs, even though our finances are actually looking kind of decent for next year…. that’s the nail in the coffin, and they don’t want to come back,” Peel said.  “Just to be clear, I’m not suggesting an irresponsible approach to our budget. But I am saying these [enrollment] numbers look small to me compared to my belief that we’ll have over half the kids back.” 

Both Fenton and board member Jason Boxer also suggested the district do more to reach out to parents of students who went to other schools this year, both to find out their future plans and to provide information that might bring those students back to MBUSD. 

“Maybe we take that proactive approach now, to get these enrollment numbers refined a little bit more,” Fenton said. “And we can have these conversations with a little bit more certainty.” 

Boxer, referring to an LA County Department of Public Health statement indicating schools are likely to see a full return to normalcy by next fall, urged the district to do more than survey parents. 

“I’m curious if there is room to sort of go beyond asking what their impressions and impulses and thoughts are about returning, and trying to make the case that they should come back?” Boxer said. “I think, especially with such a strong projection of confidence from DPH, that we should feel empowered to kind of control that narrative for families who are wondering about this and making the decision, and perhaps go beyond surveying and try to do some kind of phone banking or one-on-one contact to help make families know that we can answer their questions and try to assuage their worries.” ER 



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Written by: Kevin Cody

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