FUSD sets out to lure new students

Fresno Unified School District has launched its first marketing campaign to lure students who live outside the district.

It reflects not only increased competition -- mostly due to the growing number of charter schools -- for students and attendance dollars, but also how public schools are grappling with state funding cuts.

Clovis Unified started a similar campaign three years ago that helped increase enrollment but also irritated neighboring district leaders.

Fresno Unified has seen its enrollment decline in recent years because of more charter schools within its boundaries and also because students have transferred to adjacent districts.

This translates to a loss in state attendance dollars that can make up half of a district's general fund budget.

The district has about 73,000 students today, down by nearly 3,000 from three years ago.

And with average daily attendance funding at about $5,200 per pupil, dwindling enrollment creates a significant financial hole.

The district already has mailed 8,000 brochures to households with school-age children in Central Unified School District in Fresno, Madera Unified School District and Golden Valley School District in the Madera Ranchos community.

There also are plans for television and radio public service announcements.

The district also is considering other ways to promote its schools, including using the electronic billboard at Blackstone and Shaw avenues, said Fresno Unified spokeswoman Susan Bedi.

The district hopes to find a business sponsor to cover the cost of the billboard.

It's no surprise to hear Fresno Unified has launched a campaign to boost enrollment, said Mary Perry, deputy director of EdSource, a Mountain View-based think tank that focuses on California schools.

"We will see continued pressure on school districts to maximize their revenue," Perry said. "And because they have very little power to increase the money coming in, increasing enrollment is one of the best levers they have."

Bedi, however, downplayed the concern over enrollment and insisted the district sees the campaign as a way to publicize the district's achievements and unique programs.

The district spent $5,000 on the brochure, printed in English and Spanish, that tells parents that state law allows those who work within Fresno Unified's boundaries to enroll their children in the district -- even if they live in another school district.

The document touts Fresno Unified's "innovative" and "award-winning" schools, athletic programs and recent upgrades to high school sports facilities.

It highlights the district's magnet schools, including performing arts programs at Bullard TALENT and Roosevelt High School, the Doctors Academy at Sunnyside High, as well as Edison Computech and the Bullard High law program.

Fresno Unified also is bringing back its quarterly district newspaper to focus more positive attention on the district.

"Building Futures" will be mailed out this week to 150,000 businesses and households.

The publication, written by district staff, was halted last year, but now the district is committed to spending $20,000 per issue to print it; some of the costs are offset by advertising.

Not everybody is thrilled by Fresno Unified's new marketing effort.

"I would have appreciated a courtesy call," said Michael Berg, superintendent for Central Unified. However, he said Fresno Unified has the right to market outside its boundaries.

But Central -- which has seen enrollment growth -- is not overly concerned about losing students to Fresno, Berg said.

More students are transferring into Central than out, he said, even without a marketing campaign.

Officials at Madera Unified and Golden Valley school districts said they also aren't concerned about losing students to Fresno.

Madera Unified spokesman Jake Bragonier said his district also has seen growing enrollment.

And, he said, most families in the district both live and work in Madera and wouldn't be candidates to transfer to Fresno schools.

Golden Valley Superintendent Sarah Koligian said she was unaware of Fresno Unified's marketing efforts and agreed with Berg that a courtesy call would have been welcome.

Koligian said she let other Madera school districts know when Golden Valley launched a campaign more than a year ago to lure students.

The $20,000 campaign was initiated after the nearly 2,000-student district lost 88 students and $512,000 in ADA funds.

Golden Valley targeted workers at Children's Hospital Central California in Madera, encouraging employees -- some of whom live in Fresno and Clovis -- to transfer their children into the district.

The reality is, districts have become more competitive in trying to boost their enrollment, she said. "Every district is challenged."

Marketing has worked in Clovis Unified.

The district began a campaign in 2007 promoting the place-of-employment rule and spends up to $15,000 a year promoting the district, including advertising in Clovis movie theaters and buying billboard space at Blackstone and Herndon avenues.

"Overall, the campaign has brought in over 1,000 new students to our district," district spokeswoman Kelly Avants said.