EDITORIAL: Student loss should inspire districts to seek efficiency

Rio Grande Valley public school districts are losing students. Brownsville school board members last week voted to close three elementary schools to address their reductions.

It’s an unusual situation for the Valley, which has long been one of the fastest-growing regions in the country.

Officials should see this as an opportunity to regroup and improve operations and conditions for faculty and staff, taxpayers, and most importantly, the students they serve.

Other Valley districts also could face similar decisions in the future. Will they shutter campuses to save money, or will they reduce class sizes to improve instruction?

Officials in Brownsville, the Valley’s largest school district, felt compelled to close Longoria, Resaca and Victoria Heights elementaries after losing 4,659 students since the 2010-2011 school year.

Several factors contributed to the decline. While the area’s population is still growing, the makeup is changing. South Texas has long had a high birth rate and low median age, but that birth rate has been declining since 2003.

The success and growth of charter schools is another factor. The Texas Education Agency counts some 25,000 charter and private school students in Cameron and Hidalgo counties, and the numbers are climbing steadily. New charter school campuses are opening constantly, and they tend to fill up as soon as they do.

That’s not a bad thing. The competition has motivated public schools in the Valley and elsewhere to make innovations that have helped the students. Where charter schools boasted college preparation and high acceptance rates, growing numbers of public schools have implemented dual-enrollment courses, in which students can earn college credit for advanced placement courses. All of Brownsville’s open-admission high schools, for example, hold early-college status, enabling students to earn college credit for some classes without the expense of taking them at a university.

At the same time, the public schools have expanded career training for those who don’t plan to go to college.

Losing students hurts public schools financially, however, as state funding is based on enrollment. BISD officials cited cost savings as the primary reason to close the three schools; doing so will save the district overhead costs such as utilities and maintenance. They also will save through the reduced staffing, although officials said people who currently work at those campuses will be reassigned to other schools, and they will let the natural attrition process reduce worker numbers.

The first places where that attrition needs to take place is in administration — principals and staff. Not only are their salaries the highest, but teachers who stay on can enable the district to reduce class sizes. Brownsville often requests waivers from state teacher-student ratio requirements, and many teachers take on classes that are larger than experts say are best for proper learning.

It’s unknown how much if any tax relief will come to district property owners from the closures. But if the changes bring smaller class sizes and more streamlined administration, the reductions could bring positive outcomes for Valley students and their families.