Fallbrook High Loses Millions Of Dollars As Districts Jockey For Students
Anthony Morrow looks out over Fallbrook High School’s central quad, called the bowl because it's sunken below the campus’ main level. What he sees is “a totally different school” than the one his son and daughter attended. They graduated in 2006 and 2009.
Some of the changes are the gleaming new career center and other capital improvements, but Morrow is referring primarily to the size and makeup of the student body. When his son graduated, the campus had about 3,000 students. Today there are just over 2,000 students.
What happened? Natural demographic shifts are one factor. But there was also the opening of Mission Vista High School in 2009.
“That’s when the money left,” said Morrow, who is a principal at Fallbrook.
Mission Vista is a magnet school in the Vista Unified School District, located on Fallbrook’s southern enrollment boundary. It attracts students from all over north county with a special class schedule that lets students complete courses faster and rack up electives and college-level classes.
Faced with declining birth rates and competition from charter schools, some districts are opening magnets like Mission Vista to keep and attract students — and the state funding that follows them.
Records show over the past decade, more than 450 students have left Fallbrook for Mission Vista, taking around $4.5 million with them.
“Education currently is a consumer-based product, and how you market yourself is where you’ll get your numbers,” said Nora Maier, a special education consultant who sits on Fallbrook’s school site council. “Gone are the days where you lived across the street from school and everyone from the neighborhood went to that school.”
Jose Iniguez knows that all too well. He’s assistant superintendent of the tiny, rural district that oversees Fallbrook High.
“Any number of students that we lose is significant,” Iniguez said.
Up until this school year, Mission Vista was a major draw for Fallbrook families. Around half of the students transferring out chose Mission Vista. The rest scattered across districts in Temecula, Bonsall and Oceanside.
In total, these transfers have cost the district more than $1 million almost every year since 2011. And that doesn’t include natural enrollment declines caused by Fallbrook’s aging population and transient military and farmworker residents. Add to that the rising pension bills faced by districts across the state.
“We are in unprecedented times right now when you think about the contributions that districts are making towards benefits of employees,” Iniguez said. “That’s exacerbated by the fact that we have a decrease in students, a decrease in revenue. So when it comes to things we would like to do, we’re no longer able to do.”
There’s a common misperception that when a child leaves, a school is breaking even because, while it's not getting state funds for that student, it’s also no longer providing services for the student. But researchers looking at the same issue, in the context of charter schools, recently estimated districts rely on roughly half of the funding attached to students for fixed costs like pension bills and air conditioning. When a student leaves, those don’t go away.
Iniguez said the biggest impact of transfers from Fallbrook is that he hasn’t been able to give teachers permanent raises in several years. Instead he’s had to rely on one-time bonuses.
There’s another cost that’s harder to pin down: Other schools may also be siphoning off Fallbrook’s diversity.
State data show between 2009 and 2017, the proportion of white students at Fallbrook High decreased about 7 percentage points. Around the same time, U.S. Census Bureau's American Community Survey shows the proportion of white residents in the city of Fallbrook increased about 5 percentage points.
It’s not a perfect comparison; the state’s younger generations are more predominantly Latino. The bureau's five-year survey doesn’t provide reliable racial data by age group. But a KPBS and inewsource analysis earlier this year showed Vista’s magnet schools — the ones drawing students from other districts such as Fallbrook — are disproportionately white when compared to overall district demographics.
Civil rights experts and educators told KPBS it tends to be easier for more affluent families — who tend to be white in many parts of the county — to take advantage of policies that let students opt out of their neighborhood school.
Vista Superintendent Linda Kimble did not respond to a request for comment for this story but previously discussed the district's magnet school program with KPBS. She said the district has moved to limit the number of magnet school spots going to transfers from other districts. She's also convened a focus group to better understand why less affluent families aren't applying to the schools.
Despite the challenges, Fallbrook has been able to maintain competitive AP scores, even surpassing those at Mission Vista, and college placements. It won a Gold Ribbon award last year for excellence and could soon launch a popular International Baccalaureate program. Morrow said that success is because the school split its student body into three smaller groups two years ago, each with its own principal and support staff.
“We’re one high school, Fallbrook High School, but what we’ve done is we’ve developed a structure — we call it the house system, others call it academies and other things — where we’ve broken our high school into three small schools,” said Morrow, who is principal of Freedom House.
“Our campus is very spread out, so what it does is it takes it and it shrinks it down so our students really get a personalized education,” he said.
Iniguez said the innovation wasn’t spurred by competition from Mission Vista. Educators are always trying to improve their craft, he said. But Maier, the parent on the school site council, said the small school model is what made her choose Fallbrook for her children.
She has a son graduating this year. Her youngest will enroll as a freshman next year. Both could have gone to Mission Vista; her senior won the enrollment lottery four years ago and her eighth-grader is currently enrolled in a Vista middle school that qualifies him to go to Mission Vista. But the family went against everyone’s predictions and chose Fallbrook.
“Fallbrook High School is not good at tooting their own horn,” Maier said. “They need to get better at publicity. Mission Vista is really good at it.”
Maier said she wishes more parents knew the Fallbrook she knows, but she sees an upside to competition among schools.
“Parents are becoming more savvy and they have more options, so people have to start expanding and getting better for the current students,” Maier said.
Eventually, however, there has to be a tipping point. Hemorrhage too many students and you can’t pay for the kinds of programs that might entice them back. That could be why the current federal education law, which replaced No Child Left Behind, gave districts more leeway to deny transfer requests when they would pose a financial risk.
While Fallbrook says it’s nowhere near the tipping point, declining enrollment has forced it to stop offering French, and its sports teams are getting smaller. While some transfer requests are protected under law, Iniguez said Fallbrook is beginning to decline more of the ones that aren’t.