BOSTON’S PUBLIC SCHOOL SYSTEM has weathered a steep decline in student enrollment in recent years without any major fiscal fallout, but that’s due largely to a big infusion of money from the city and COVID relief aid from the federal government. As that aid runs out and enrollment continues to fall, while costs continue to rise, a new report warns, the district faces a “potential fiscal cliff.” 

Enrollment in the district has fallen by 15 percent since 2014, with particularly steep declines during the pandemic. “There’s no evidence that suggests a reversal in that trend anytime soon,” said Will Austin, the CEO of the nonprofit Boston Schools Funds, in a presentation Wednesday on enrollment trends in Boston schools. “The problem is not going away, and it has real ramifications for children, schools, and the district as a whole.”

A report released by the organization, which works to increase the number of high-quality schools in the city, says the city must squarely face the impact of the trends, which means grappling with the difficult issue of school closures among other things. 

The report says the sharp drop in district enrollment, which has gone from 54,300 students in 2014 to 46,000 this year, has been driven by a combination of factors, including a drop in birth rates, migration out of the city, and a slowdown of migration into the city by foreign-born residents. 

Almost every neighborhood has seen a falloff in BPS enrollment, and two-thirds of schools have seen enrollment declines. Among demographic groups, the drop-off has been particularly steep among Black students, whose enrollment numbers are down nearly 18 percent over the last five years. Meanwhile, the share of high-needs students in the district has gone up, driven largely by an increase in the share of low-income students, who have gone from 57 percent to 70 percent of the student population. 

Although the enrollment decrease has come amid an overall decline in the city’s population of school-age children aged 5 to 17, which has fallen by almost 5,000 since the start of the pandemic, it has been concentrated in the Boston Public Schools. BPS has seen a much steeper enrollment decline than private schools or out-of-district placements through METCO. Meanwhile, enrollment numbers are up for Boston charter schools and for families opting to homeschool their children. 

Based on a 2017 facilities analysis, the report said that the school system has capacity for 55,206 students, or nearly 7,000 more than the district’s current enrollment. That excess capacity equates to 16.5 average-sized Boston schools. 

But those extra seats are spread across the district in schools with partially filled classrooms. “It’s not as if there are just 17 buildings with no children in them, and we could just stop paying for them or operating them,” said Kerry Donahue, chief strategy officer at Boston Schools Fund. 

The report highlights the costs of under-enrolled schools and classrooms. The baseline funding for schools comes from a combination of city and state funds that is distributed on a per-pupil basis. A fully enrolled Boston classroom with 25 students, the report says, generates $625,000 in per pupil funding, while an under-enrolled classroom of 12 students has the same fixed costs in terms of staffing and facility needs, but generates only $300,000 in per pupil funds. In schools with multiple under-enrolled classes, the ripples effects mean lack of funding for school-wide resources and staffing, such as librarians or art and music programs. 

The Boston school department has been making up for these gaps with supplementary funding referred to as “soft landing” money. The term suggests the funds are intended to help schools restructure and make the transition to lower enrollment levels, but soft landing funding has skyrocketed over the last five years and become baked into the budgets for many Boston schools. 

Soft landing funding amounted to less than $5 million per year through the 2019 budget year, but has now ballooned to $56.6 million this year, or 3.7 percent of the district budget. The soft landing funding, combined with more than $400 million in federal COVID relief aid and $100 million that former mayor Marty Walsh committed to the district over three years, has brought $528 million in new funding sources to the district since 2016, the bulk of it coming in the last three years. 

But the federal COVID money will run out after the fiscal 2024 budget. Meanwhile, continuing the soft landing funding makes sense “in the short term,” said Austin. “But is this a helpful long-term strategy? I think that’s a different question.”  

The report points out that the soft landing funding does nothing to enhance school offerings – it merely helps schools hold their own. It calls the funding stream “unsustainable” spending that could otherwise go toward boosting educational programming. 

In a statement, a spokesperson for the Boston Public Schools acknowledged the enrollment falloff, but did not address the financial implications or issue of excess capacity in facilities. “While it is true that our enrollment rate is declining, that does not change our core focus,” the statement said. “We are resolute in our mission and we are committed to addressing our structural issues, including the quality of our school buildings through the Green New Deal initiatives, and offering equitable access to opportunities for all of our students.”

While the district may need to consolidate or close schools in response to the enrollment trends, the report says it should also be more aggressive in building new schools to replace the city’s many outmoded and dilapidated school buildings. “You have to do both at the same time,” said Donahue.

Rather than the current pace of two to three school building projects at a time, the report calls for the city to tap Mayor Michelle Wu’s $2 billion Green New Deal plan for city facilities to manage 8 to 10 school building projects at once. The report also calls for further study and focus groups to better understand what is driving families out of the city and its schools and what is most important to them when considering where to send their children to school.