Superintendent Hilda Maldonado | Credit: Ingrid Bostrom

Families are packing up and hightailing it out of Santa Barbara, which means fewer students to fill the school district’s classrooms. Enrollment in Santa Barbara Unified schools has been on a downward slope that’s predicted to only get steeper, district officials said at Tuesday’s school board meeting. 

But the dramatic fall in attendance was not catalyzed by the COVID-19 pandemic, as was the case with statewide enrollment plummeting in the 2021-22 and 2022-23 school years. 

Santa Barbara’s drop coincides more with California’s declining population — a trend that extends back to before the pandemic ushered more students out of the classroom and families out of the state. 

The number of students attending the district’s schools has decreased by a cumulative 11 percent — representing 1,468 students — since 2017. Kindergarten enrollment, in particular, saw a decrease of 19.7 percent since 2016.

And those kids are not coming back, at least not anytime soon. 

Taking into consideration historic enrollment trends and Cottage Hospital birth rates — which have dropped by 16.6 percent since 2011 — the district predicts a 25 percent decrease in kindergarten enrollment from 2016-17 to 2027-28.

“Even if something were to happen, it would have to be pretty significant to change the trajectory,” said Steve Venz, the district’s chief operations officer, at Tuesday’s school board meeting.

Venz called kindergarten enrollment a “wave,” because the effect of fewer students entering kindergarten will ripple out across the school district as kids get older. Overall, the district expects to see a 22 percent decrease in attendance from 2017-18 to 2027-28.

District officials speculate that alongside the drop in birth rates, family out-migration patterns in the community and across California — due to housing costs or the loss of work, for example — have led to fewer and fewer students enrolled in local schools.

Superintendent Dr. Hilda Maldonado said that, since August 2022, roughly 50 percent of Santa Barbara Unified students who withdrew from the district transferred to other public schools in the state, while about 18 percent moved out of California, 9 percent out of the country, and 11 percent to private schools.

Fewer kids does not mean the district is going broke, however. As a community-funded school district, their funding primarily comes from local property tax revenues — which they can use to spend, on average, $12,938 per pupil. 

A reduction in class sizes and hiring more teachers has steadily improved the district’s student-to-teacher ratio since 2021. However, with fewer students and a shortfall in this year’s state budget projections, they may need to shift around funding and staff to meet their student achievement goals.

“There typically isn’t initially a large change to how we do business,” when enrollment decreases, “because it just means less kids in a classroom,” Maldonado said. “I think as we start to look at trends over time, that’s when we really need to ask ourselves questions about facilities use, personnel, and services that we offer.” 


Please note this login is to submit events or press releases. Use this page here to login for your Independent subscription

Not a member? Sign up here.