A former state demographer is offering little hope of a turnaround in the enrollment decline that has put the St. Paul Public Schools in budget-cutting mode for the past two years.
That slump, in fact, is expected to last at least a decade, Hazel Reinhardt told the school board last week.
Her report came on the same day that the board named a new superintendent, and it brought a harder edge to an issue already under scrutiny.
Four school board candidates said in surveys posted online last week that enrollment was one of three major issues confronting the state's second-largest district. The St. Paul Federation of Teachers also has asked school board and mayoral candidates if they would back a school levy increase if one were put before voters.
The idea had unanimous support. But the board is not ready to float such a measure.
Board Chairman Jon Schumacher said Friday: "I don't believe we can talk about a referendum until we are able to show the community we are using our current budget as efficiently and effectively as possible and have pursued every option available for additional financial support."
The loss of students, and the revenue they bring, has been a contributing factor in budget shortfalls of $15.1 million this year and another $27.3 million projected for 2017-18.
Two years ago, Reinhardt, hired as a consultant by the district, projected a slow, steady rise in student population. The district would have between 37,551 and 38,983 students in 2024-25, she told the board then. (It now has 35,174 students.)
This week, she told the board that the district instead can expect enrollment to fall annually to between 32,201 and 33,733 students in 2026-27.
The numbers do not include preschoolers or students in area learning centers.
She cited the exodus of students to charter schools and delays on the part of millennials starting families as factors in the decline. The district also continues to lose students between fifth and sixth grade, Reinhardt said.
Former Superintendent Valeria Silva made the shift from two-year junior highs to three-year middle schools a cornerstone of her Strong Schools, Strong Communities strategic plan.
Board Member Steve Marchese said that he expects a deeper look at building configurations and attendance zones as established under that plan.
Fellow board member John Brodrick seconded that.
"Why are we losing enrollment to the charters and surrounding school districts?" he asked.