CENTREVILLE — For the second year in a row, Queen Anne’s County Public School recorded a drop in total student enrollment to the Maryland State Department of Education.
According to the school system’s full time equivalent enrollment number — data submitted annually to MSDE for consideration of financial aid — at the end of September, 7,124 students were enrolled for the 2021-22 school year.
That’s a decrease of 47 students compared to the 2020-21 school year.
While not a dramatic figure, QACPS has not been able to close the drop in enrollment it experienced last school year. Compared to the 2019-2020 session, QACPS enrollment fell by 334 students, or 4.45 percent, in the 2020-21 school year.
Though the county’s total student population is 7,465, because itinerant, preschool and pre-K programs are not funded by the state, their numbers — totaling 331 students in 2021-22 — are not included in the MSDE count.
Matt Evans, QACPS supervisor of student services, said this decrease could be attributed to students transferring to either home instruction or private schools offering expanded programs following last year’s lockdown.
While Evans said the county’s home instruction numbers are still higher than normal, with 486 enrolled, home instruction dropped by 163 students this year. Combined with the county’s deflating total, this figure indicates that the students who left QACPS for private schools have not returned.
“They didn’t all come back to us like we were hoping,” Evans said. “So that’s still an issue.”
While county governments primarily fund public education, enrollment numbers are important for counties and states to track because they play a role in the amount of money both levels of government contribute to local schools.
As per the maintenance of effort law, the county is required to provide as much funding for the new fiscal year as they did in the prior year, on a per-pupil basis. The amount of money counties provide their schools, or “education effort,” is calculated by dividing the funds allocated to their boards of education by the county’s wealth. With fluctuating enrollment, generally speaking, more money is reserved to schools when they have more students, and less money when there are less students.
However, if the county’s education effort does not match or surpass the state’s education effort, the county is required to match the state’s effort, lest lose funding from the state.
According to a March 2020 presentation on the school system’s FY 2021 budget, for several years throughout the 2010s, QACPS was funded at the minimum level required by the maintenance of effort law.
In response to the pandemic’s effect on enrollment, the Kirwan Commission, a state-sponsored board tasked with overseeing the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future education reform bill, decided to change the maintenance of effort formula for FY 2022.
According to County Administrator Todd Mohn, instead of basing education effort around the number of students enrolled by Sept. 30, as is usually the case, FY 2022 funding was considered based on a three-year enrollment average, excluding numbers from the 2020-21 school year. This decision was designed to prevent the pandemic from tipping school funding one way or the other.
Mohn said that between the state’s preparations for the legislative session and the county’s for solidifying FY 2023 budgets, Queen Anne’s County will have a better idea of how QACPS’ lower enrollment numbers will affect funding in the coming months.
Beyond funding complications, Board of Education President Richard Smith said the lower enrollment in elementary and middle schools concerned him because of the potential “influx” of students that may decide to return to QACPS for high school. Saelens suggested, however, that none of the school system’s long-term projection data shows that increase.
On the other hand, the superintendent expressed concern that QACPS may not “recuperate that many students,” even if the county pushes past the pandemic and returns to its regular school operations.
Some of the parents upset by the school system and Superintendent Patricia Saelens’ decision to require masks in school buildings said they would take their child out of public school. But the extent to which mask requirements affected QACPS’ 2021-22 enrollment numbers is unclear.
MSDE officials announced criteria in December — related to vaccination percentages and transmission rates — that would allow county school systems to cease masking requirements.
During the Board of Education’s Jan. 5 meeting, however, Saelens said that because QACPS did not meet any of the MSDE qualifications, the school system was “not entertaining” the off-ramps at this time.