Established districts losing students
The Arizona Republic
Jan. 17, 2007
Millions of dollars at stake in Phoenix, Mesa, Scottsdale schools
After decades of adding classrooms and teachers, school districts in some of the
Valley's more established neighborhoods are wrestling with enrollment declines.
The loss of students, which results in le ss state funding, will lead to tighter
budgets and difficult decisions for large districts in Mesa, Phoenix and
With millions of dollars at stake, districts such as Scottsdale Unified have
taken aggressive tactics such as advertising in movie theaters and hanging
street banners to recruit students. In Mesa, where the state's largest district
lost nearly 700 students last school year and hundreds more this year, educators
are battling to keep students in traditional public schools, which face
increased competition from charter schools.
The district renamed its alternative schools and worked to change its image,
while adding a new small school, Crossroads for seventh- to 12th-graders, that
functions more like a charter school.
In the Paradise Valley district, enrollment dropped by 373 students last year.
But district officials anticipate residential development, making it tricky to
determine the need for a new high school.
"Up until you hit that peak, you're growing and people are used to, 'Hey, we've
got a thousand new kids,' " said Chuck Essigs, director of government relations
for the Arizona Association of School Business Officials. "Those thousand kids
are nice revenue generators for the district, and people get used to that."
Overall, the Valley's public school enrollment continues to climb, including
thousands of new students in the Gilbert, Deer Valley, Chandler and Dysart
But before adding buildings, programs or staff, school districts should gauge
enrollment projections to ensure that enough students will enroll in the future
to pay for operating costs, Essigs said.
Complicating matters is Arizona's law on district funding. In some states,
districts that lose students make up for lost state revenue by raising more
money locally, Essigs said.
In Arizona, a decrease in enrollment mandates a drop in the maximum budget
allowed under state law, a provision that holds down the local tax burden but
makes budget decisions tough for districts.
On average, districts receive more than $8,000 in state funding per student
enrolled, but that amount can vary depending on the type of student, attendance
rate and whether the child is a special-needs student or English learner.
Districts that receive state funding to construct schools also receive more
funding per student.
The School Facilities Board calculates state funding for school construction
based on total enrollment growth, not a specific part of a district.
Therefore, some districts have had to get voter approval for bonds to build
When John Baracy took over as superintendent of the Scottsdale Unified district
in 2004, enrollment had dropped by more than 200 students the previous school
year, a decline that threatened to cut funding for programs he wanted to keep.
It wasn't the first time Baracy, the former superintendent of the Tempe
Elementary district, had faced an enrollment decline. And, as before, he
confronted the problem with aggressive marketing.
Scottsdale, he said, has more jobs than its residents can fill, bringing in
commuters every day for work. At the same time, Scottsdale schools received high
ratings from the state. Baracy saw an opportunity to attract parents and their
children to his district through open enrollment, a provision in Arizona law
that allows students to attend a public school outside the district in which
"Why wouldn't they want to come to an outstanding school district probably as
good or better in these excelling schools than the one they came from?"
To encourage enrollment, the district has beefed up its Web site, advertised in
movie theaters, worked with real estate agents and hung banners along Scottsdale
Road announcing the start of school.
Now more than 2,000 students attend Scottsdale schools through open enrollment,
up from about 1,000 when Baracy arrived, he said. Total enrollment last school
year increased by 260 students, and is up by more than 100 this year.
The Paradise Valley Unified district hired a demographer to assess enrollment
projections, which will be used to decide whether new schools, including a high
school, should be built in the northern area where residential development is
occurring, spokeswoman Judi Willis said.
"The homes that go in there are going to have to be expensive homes, and those
typically aren't your starter homes for young families," Willis said.
In the district's southern sector, enrollment is declining.
Overall, 83 percent of students living in the Paradise Valley district are
attending its schools. The enrollment analysis, produced by Applied Economics,
found that charter and private schools are pulling away students from the
district. On the other hand, the district has more than 2,000 students attending
from outside its boundaries.
Despite the expected addition of more than 18,000 housing units, the analysis
predicts the district could increase total enrollment by only a few hundred
students over the next decade.
In Mesa, district officials want to transform alternative schools, which they
now call "focus" schools, from a place for only troubled kids to a haven for
students unhappy with large high schools, dropouts and those who left the
traditional school system for charters.
The district's newest school, Crossroads, has a small enrollment and offers
students a computer-based curriculum that allows teachers to monitor students'
progress. Next year, the district plans to open the Mesa Academy for Advanced
Studies, where a few hundred students in Grades 4-9 will study under an
accelerated, in-depth curriculum intended to be on par with what elite private
or charter schools might offer.
Reporter Ofelia Madrid contributed to this article.