Enrollment projections were part of a presentation at a Tuesday meeting of the School Committee. (Image: Cambridge Public Schools)

A drop-off in enrollment of Cambridge Public Schools’ youngest students that may signal long-term changes was discussed with budget projections last week by the School Committee.

District chief financial officer Claire Spinner gave preliminary spending and revenue projections on Feb. 1 for a $232.4 million budget in the fiscal year 2023 budget with a focus on emerging themes.

Enrollment increased every year over the last decade and peaked at 7,236 in the 2019-2020 academic year. This was followed by a “pretty significant slide in enrollment” of 418 students in 2020-2021 due to the pandemic, Spinner said. That brought the district to 6,818 students, and this year enrollment fell further to 6,737 students – an overall drop of 499 students, or 6.9 percent, over the past two years. While statewide enrollment has decreased only about 3.9 percent, there were districts such as Newton more similar to Cambrdge’s that she believed had seen bigger drops.

Upper school and high school enrollment remained stable, Spinner said. The decline is largely in elementary school-aged students, due to a combination of birth rate and some Covid impacts. Junior kindergarten and kindergarten years are most affected, down 167 students compared with 2020, or approximately 17 percent. This year’s seat lottery ending Jan. 31 had 482 students register compared with 529 in 2021 and slightly over 600 in 2020 and 2019.

The average birthrate between 2011 to 2016 was 1,250 annually, while between 2016 and 2020 that went down to 1,077, a roughly 9 percent decrease.

“We’re trying to sort of understand – is this sort of a blip or is it a trend?” said Spinner, adding that long-term enrollment trends affect staffing and plans for campuses. Though a chart in her presentation showed projected enrollment dwindling year over year to 6,417 students by 2026-2027 – down 11.3 percent from a peak two years ago – the projections of what looked like a trend weren’t questioned. More discussion was promised.

Impact on district budget

State funding for the district will be stable despite declining enrollment, Spinner said. Even if state funding dips, the majority of the budget comes from Cambridge property taxes, and any change will have limited impact.

While there are about 160 empty kindergarten seats, the district made no changes to staff or resource allocation because it wasn’t clear if the lower enrollment was a “one-year pandemic fluke,” Spinner said. Because there are class seat minimums, enrollment dips would have to be extreme to affect the number of teachers.

With smaller kindergarten enrollment for the third year in a row, the district will discuss how resources will be allocated to these smaller classes as they progress through the system over time, Spinner said. The district will evaluate enrollment projections in the fall to look at changes to JK/K classrooms and the lottery.

General budget

The district is estimating a $232.4 million budget based on initial conversations with City Manager Louis A. DePasquale, assistant city manager for fiscal affairs and public investments David Kale and budget director Taha Jennings.

“We have space in that funding to meet all of our current projected needs for existing staff and service levels,” Spinner said. Staff salaries and benefits are the largest part of the budget and increasing the most due to cost-of-living and step increases built into contracts.

Over four years the district budget has increased by 22 percent, or $41.3 million, Spinner said, calling the city “very generous.”

Upcoming meetings

The budget presentation included feedback staff, students and department heads to “broaden and expand the transparency” as the budget is developed, Spinner said. This information, in addition to family and community input, will be shared in more detail at future meetings, superintendent Victoria Greer said.

The City Council and School Committee will hold a virtual joint roundtable meeting on budget priorities at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday. There will be no public comment.

Budget meetings for Cambridge Rindge and Latin School students will be held during lunch on Thursday; two public community meetings will be held at 10 a.m. and 11a.m. Saturday.

The district will present a budget update with community feedback at the School Committee meeting Feb. 15.