Bay Area families leave cities, flock to suburbs for schools

Thirty years ago, the Bay Area suburb of Dublin's eastside was little more than miles of ranchland.   Today, it's lined with new houses and apartments home to thousands of new-to-the area families. 

On a sunny afternoon, the city of 61,000's playgrounds, cul-de-sacs and sports fields are buzzing with children, and the roads and strip mall parking lots are packed with minivans and electric cars.   

The city's building boom following the Great Recession resulted in the Dublin Unified School District tripling its number of students since 2000 - the only Bay Area district to do so while the region as a whole saw a 3.7 percent increase from 2000 and 2019.

Along with the rest of the state, Bay Area enrollment plunged around 6.2 percent during the pandemic to 859,619 students - the lowest it's been in more than 20 years.   

Families flocked to the Tri-Valley city of Dublin for its new homes, new jobs, well-regarded schools and proximity to other job hubs in Silicon Valley, Oakland and San Francisco. 

The construction of thousands of new homes and apartments across five new developments allowed the 12,491-student district to build seven new schools, with two more on the way to bring the total to 15. The U.S. Census Bureau deemed Dublin the fastest-growing city in California between 2000 and 2019, and one of the 15 fastest-growing cities in the country.   

"It's almost like a new city," said Ram Bora, whose boys are in kindergarten and first grade in Dublin Unified schools. Bora moved there from Los Angeles about five years ago and lives in one of the new eastside developments.   

Ed Pruno, whose children are in kindergarten and fifth grade, said he left the East Bay about 10 years ago to "settle down" and start a family. He was attracted to Dublin by the positive reviews of its schools on the real estate listing websites as well as the city's lower-home prices when compared with elsewhere in the region. 

Pruno said he moved around a lot as a child and sought out Dublin as a place where his children could finish all of their K-12 schooling.   "I wanted to give them what I didn't have," Pruno said.   

Neither Pruno nor Bora said school overcrowding was an issue for their children. 

Superintendent Chris Funk said the enrollment increase has been "manageable," though schools have had to move some classes into portables as school construction catches up.   

Brentwood Union Elementary and Liberty Union High were the other two districts that saw the highest rates of enrollment growth since 2000. 

Both are located in the east Contra Costa County suburbs of Brentwood and Oakley. 

Much like Dublin, those cities quickly grew with the construction of new homes. They both doubled their enrollment but still remain under 10,000 students.   

Growing suburbs with modest regional growth between 2000 and 2019 doesn't tell the whole story, however. 

Districts that serve more low-income students in cities with less new construction lost thousands of students during that time, only exacerbating existing budget woes.   Funk has seen what it's like at both growing and declining districts. 

Before taking the superintendent position at Dublin Unified, he served in the same role in San Jose's East Side Union High School District, which saw an 8 percent enrollment drop between 2000 and 2019.   

"I would much rather be at a growing district than a declining district," Funk said. "We're able to give our employees raises without having to lay people off, and expand our programming."   

Vallejo City Unified saw one of the sharpest enrollment drops in the Bay Area - losing 43.6 percent of its students between 2000 and 2019, and another 8.7 percent over the pandemic years of 2019 through 2021. 

That resulted in the district having to make $29 million in budget cuts, and to closing or consolidating six campuses since 2017, said district spokeswoman Celina Baguiao.   

Vallejo City Unified started to see declining enrollment in the 1990s going into the 2000s and went into state receivership in 2004 after finding itself millions in debt. Then came the Great Recession. The working-class city of 120,000 people was one of the country's cities hit hardest by the foreclosure crisis and declared bankruptcy in 2008.   

The district still owes $9 million on the state's $60 million loan, Baguiao said. Paying off the debt with an even tighter budget due to enrollment loss makes it harder to fund the things that could improve schools and draw more students.   

"As we continue to pay the loan off, we have the extra financial burden to consider when expanding programs and hiring," Baguiao said.   As Vallejo schools' budgets tightened, charter schools drew students from district schools. 

According to state enrollment data, the city's six independent charter schools grew by nearly 84 percent since 2014, adding a total of 1,099 students over that time while district enrollment shrank by 24.7 percent, or 3,378 students.   Charter school enrollment throughout the Bay Area more than doubled between 2009 and 2021, from 36,810 to 82,875.   

The other two Bay Area districts with the highest rates of enrollment decrease over the past 20 years are Ravenswood City School District in East Palo Alto and Alum Rock Union Elementary in San Jose. 

Both districts have had to close schools in recent years to adjust to the funding loss.   Some of Vallejo City Unified's high rate of enrollment loss can also be attributed to families leaving the Bay Area over the region's high cost of living, Baguiao said.   

"While the median-priced home is cheaper in Vallejo than in many of our neighboring cities, it still costs a lot of money to live in this area," she said.   Vallejo City Unified and most other districts haven't researched where departing families are moving to. West Contra Costa Unified, however, has managed to track where some families are going. 

In a report presented at Wednesday night's school board meeting, the district found that slightly more than half of the 1,206 students that left the district last year went to a different district, while about 14 percent enrolled in charters, 13 percent enrolled outside the state and 8 percent enrolled in private schools. 

The students enrolled in neighboring Vallejo City Unified and Oakland Unified, as well as Antioch Unified farther east in Contra Costa County.   

Of the 539 students who have already filed requests to transfer districts next year, 76 percent are going to neighboring Albany Unified and Berkeley Unified school districts. Others are going elsewhere in the Bay Area.   

West Contra Costa Unified itself saw an enrollment drop of 18.5 percent between 2000 and 2019. Nearby Oakland Unified lost more than 30 percent of its enrollment during that period, while expenses increased. 

Oakland Unified's decades-long budget woes prompted the district's school board, in February, to approve a proposal to close, consolidate and merge 11 schools to adjust to the enrollment drop. 

The decision was met with hunger strikes and other ongoing protests and actions by members of the community and the local teachers union, the Oakland Education Association.   

The Bay Area's largest district, San Francisco Unified, saw a 10 percent enrollment drop between 2000 and 2019. The city had an influx of new residents during that time, but the number of households with children decreased. In a 2017 policy brief, County Supervisor Norman Yee chalked it up to a lack of affordable family housing, making the city less desirable than other Bay Area cities for incoming families.   

Districts like those that serve higher percentages of students from low-income families could suffer another major financial hit next year, Funk pointed out. 

Fewer families are submitting household income forms to their districts, he said, because the forms are no longer required to access free school meals now that California is providing free meals to all students. 

That will inevitably reduce the amount of supplemental funds districts qualify for under the state's Local Control Funding Formula.  

 "It's a double whammy," Funk said.