Chandler Unified School District has about 1,600 fewer students than it expected, prompting administrators to grapple with a possible funding shortfall of nearly $21 million.

CUSD, one of Arizona’s largest school districts, had projected 47,000 students at its 42 campuses for the 2020-2021 school year. But recent estimates taken from the first week of school this month indicate CUSD missed its projection by 1,656 kids.     

“That really impacts our school district,” said CUSD Chief Financial Officer Lana Berry. 

The enrollment numbers are not final because some students may not have been able to log on to their virtual classes yet, she added, so it’s not clear yet how many students have completely withdrawn from CUSD. 

But the early enrollment estimates appear to be troubling, Berry added, because the district’s primary source of state funding is based on how many students attend school each day.   

“When your enrollment goes down, it ultimately decreases your budget,” Berry said at a recent Governing Board meeting. 

The dreary numbers are a major reversal from where CUSD was positioning itself to be less than a year ago. 

The district seemed to be one of the few in Arizona expecting an increased enrollment and was expecting to grow by at least 100 students this school year.

The positive projections pushed administrators last year to approve plans for building two new schools -- one elementary campus and one high school -- in the district’s booming eastern region, which serves some 10,000 Gilbert children. 

The district further used its growing enrollment numbers to convince Chandler residents to vote for a $290-million bond measure last year. 

“It is projected that the district will grow by approximately 300 students per year for the next 10 years which requires additional classrooms and related furniture,” CUSD wrote in the voter pamphlet for the 2019 bond measure, which passed by a wide majority. 

Now the uncertainty caused by the pandemic is forcing CUSD to reimagine a future that could include a funding loss of about $21 million. 

Gov. Doug Ducey has allocated $370 million to help Arizona’s school districts stabilize their budgets and CUSD is expected to get $12 million of that. 

But the district is still left with a loss of $8.4 million that won’t be covered through additional financial assistance from the state. 

The district’s needs currently outweigh the amount of financial assistance from the state, Berry said, so CUSD may have to find a way to cover that funding gap. 

“All of our cash reserves are starting to decline too,” she said. “To make a big cut means we have to use our reserves to cover that difference.”  

Personnel cuts is a significant concern for the district at the moment, as it attempts to continue retaining its 5,200 employees. 

One problem CUSD faces is figuring out how to pay for positions not funded through state aid.

 The district has a number of jobs funded through revenue it regularly collects through offering daycare services, cafeteria meals and after-school activities -- services that suddenly become unavailable when campuses are closed. 

During the fourth quarter of the last school year – when Ducey ordered all of Arizona’s schools to close – CUSD chose to pull $3.8 million from its reserves to cover the payroll for positions normally funded through the revenue it makes by providing support services. 

But administrators say it won’t be sustainable for CUSD to continue relying on contingency funds to supplement these payroll expenses. 

“This quarter we have not been able to do that because we have to have revenue coming in to support those staff members,” Berry said.

Since March, CUSD has had to spend nearly $13 million on unexpected expenses needed to adapt to the pandemic’s impacts. 

Nearly $7 million has been spent on buying more laptops and computers for students. More than $5 million was needed to train staff and for extra payroll expenses. And about $850,000 was spent on stocking the district’s schools with protective gear.  

CUSD only got an extra $3 million from the state to cover the $13 million it spent reacting to the pandemic. 

The district’s additionally in the process of trying to get reimbursed by the U.S. Department of Emergency and Military Affairs for money it spent on new protective gear. 

Receipts for plexiglass and masks are submitted to the federal agency on a regular basis, Berry said, and CUSD hopes to get reimbursed for at least $200,000. 

“Some of them get rejected, some of them get approved,” she said.