The Minneapolis Public School district has fewer than 28,000 students in grades K-12 this year — proving the persistence of a steep enrollment decline in the city's schools, which have lost more than 7,000 students over the last five years.

In October 2021, the district enrolled more than 29,500 K-12 students. The official count recorded by the state Department of Education has now dropped to just shy of 28,000 students, mirroring district leaders' adjusted projections from last school year.

"We did that adjustment last January as we were seeing a stream of students leaving the district during out-of-school time," said Tyrize Cox, the district's executive director of engagement and external relations.

Recent board meetings have also focused on offering updates on student progress and how school staff members identify students in need of academic interventions. Stark disparities persist between white students and students of color, though the district is reporting small proficiency increases for most student groups.

Proficiency rates in both math and reading have increased for American Indian students, according to fall assessment data, said Sarah Hunter, the district's executive director of strategic initiatives.

Proficiency rates for Asian students have dropped, specifically for students whose home languages are Hmong, Dari and Pashto, Hunter said.

"It's not far and away super positive data, but we're moving in the right direction," she said.

The school board recently approved two contracts — for up to $3 million combined — for virtual tutoring services that schools can opt into. Both the vendors have committed to offering services in Dari and Pashto if needed, said Aimee Fearing, the district's senior officer of academics.

"At this point, we have a lot of work to do," Fearing said about the tutoring services. "It's not going to be the magic bullet for everyone ... but this is one option we can provide to our schools."

Because state funding is doled out per pupil, fewer students means less money for the city's public schools. Inflation has further stretched the district's budget, which is currently balanced using federal funds that have a sunset date of 2024.

Minneapolis Public Schools' finance department leaders have recommended the district revise its policy to increase the debt service level from 15% of the district's total operating revenue to 20%. The school board will vote on the policy revision next month.

"If things were normal, I wouldn't have even touched this," said Ibrahima Diop, the district's senior financial officer, at a finance committee meeting last month.

Inflation has raised the price tag of the district's capital projects, Diop said. In the two and a half years since plans were designed for the new $88 million career and technical education center at North High School, the cost of the project has increased by more than $12 million, he told the school board.

At the October meeting, Diop said the district was approaching the 15% debt limit.

"If we look at the aggregate impact of inflation, we will go past that [15%]," he said, adding that the debt service limit was last revised in 2011. "While we're in this time, let's raise it to continue operating."