ST. LOUIS • After several years of stable enrollment, about 1,500 students left St. Louis Public Schools between last spring and this fall, with most departing for schools in St. Louis County or other parts of the region.
Superintendent Kelvin Adams announced the unexpected enrollment drop to the Special Administrative Board on Thursday night after teachers spoke for about an hour into the microphone about financial pressures they’re experiencing from years of stagnant salaries and negligible stipends.
If enrollment numbers don’t rebound next year, Adams said, the district stands to lose millions of dollars in state funding, compounding budgetary problems that already have teachers financially stressed and some students without services that they need.
As students leave the district, Adams explained, the district doesn’t experience a proportionate decrease in expenses. Pension obligations have risen to more than $31 million from $19 million in 2008, he said. The cost of providing employee health insurance is up. Expenses and maintenance costs don’t change for the 72 buildings the district uses for schools and programs, even if 37 schools experienced double-digit losses.
“I don’t know if the costs that we have to bear with the loss of students is fully understood by the community,” said Richard Gaines, a member of the three-member special board.
Six elementary schools have fewer than 200 students, Adams said. Three high schools have less than 300. He did not name which ones.
“We have a real challenge about what to do around building sizes,” Adams said.
In the past, parents and district residents have fought proposals to close high schools. In recent years, they successfully rallied to keep Sumner High and Cleveland Naval Junior ROTC High schools open, after Adams recommended their closure.
Adams said there must be a conversation around what is important. That conversation must include raising revenue as well as closing half-empty school buildings, Adams said.
“We have 13 high schools,” Adams said. “Hazelwood has three. There’s a cost factor in keeping 13 open.”
About 24,700 students in preschool through 12th grade are attending city district schools this year. That’s about 6 percent fewer than last year, Adams said. Charter schools — public schools that operate independently of the district — continue to increase in number and enrollment. But the district’s biggest competitor remains suburban districts.
According to district data, one out of three children who left the district transferred to schools in St. Louis County or other public schools in the region. About 11 percent left for charter schools. The destination of 39 percent of the children is unknown, Adams said.
The loss is another indication that families with children continue to leave St. Louis in search of better schools or safer neighborhoods, or both. They leave behind an education infrastructure that requires funding.
“I don’t know if our staff understands that our capacity to provide competitive salaries is involved with the number of children who go to our schools,” Gaines said. “Because we still have to maintain a substantial number of buildings in this city that effectively are empty.”
About 75 teachers who had been at the meeting earlier had left by the time Adams spoke. Some wore T-shirts protesting their salaries. Several spoke about the hardship of raising children on salaries that have barely moved in a decade, despite multiple years of experience and advanced degrees.
“I have 14 years of experience and get paid like a third-year teacher,” said Isaac Dozier, a teacher at Compton Drew Middle School. “The difference is $23,000.”
Teachers describe working more hours. Some have second jobs sacking groceries or at drug stores. They say they haven’t had a pay increase since 2008. The district says it issued two raises and two step adjustments during that time. But neither Adams nor members of the Special Administrative Board have argued that teachers don’t deserve more.
Adams said he has 69 teaching positions he cannot fill, and 46 openings for support staff.
“It’s been very difficult to hire staff on the support staff side,” he said. The issue is salary.
“We have to make a decision as a community about what’s important to us,” Adams said. “It’s that simple.”