Enrollment down in Arizona's public schools
Arizona Republic
April 21, 2008



Ray Parker

For the first time since unifying more than 50 years ago, Mesa Public Schools, Arizona's largest district, will consider closing a school because it faces a $20 million budget deficit.

Tucson Unified, Arizona's second-largest district, also is looking at shuttering four schools. It closed two schools in the past four years.

Meanwhile, Scottsdale Unified board members last month rejected a proposal to close two schools to save money after strong opposition from parents.

Once-robust public-school enrollment growth has ground to a halt in several districts, which experts blame on changing neighborhoods and sinking housing prices.

Declining enrollment has forced districts to slash millions of dollars from their budgets, hire fewer teachers and move carefully on construction projects.

But the most controversial measure involves closing schools: Mesa board members will consider closing one school on Tuesday and Tucson school board members will consider on April 29 a proposal to close four campuses. Parents have voiced opposition to the closures.

Mesa is facing the budget shortfall for the next school year in part because of its enrollment drop.

The news is cheerier in other districts on the outskirts of Maricopa County, such as Dysart, Chandler and Higley in Gilbert, which all showed healthy enrollment increases this school year, according to an Arizona Republic study of the 54 public-school districts in Maricopa County.

Housing prices

Arizona State University economist Tracy Clark called housing the engine driving enrollment, with lower prices correlating with higher enrollments.

Families with school-age children find better luck in the "outlying areas," from Dysart in the northwest Valley to Chandler in the southeast Valley.

"Other districts, such as Mesa, have the problem of maintaining older schools in aging neighborhoods while building new schools on its periphery," Clark said. Mesa Public Schools officials knew this year they must cut more than $7 million because of a decline of about 1,500 students, escalating a student exodus that has happened over the past three years.

Mesa school-board member David Lane said there is not one factor for the student decline but many, including empty nesters not moving out of older neighborhoods.

That's the reason officials are considering closing down Jordan Elementary.

"There's not one thing you can point to; it's a stack," Lane said.

Meanwhile, surrounding districts showed student increases. Chandler Unified added 1,650 students and Higley Unified 1,100.

Chandler Unified spokesman Terry Locke said, "We were expecting the increase, which is the result of families moving into new communities as their homes are completed."

At the other end of the Valley, Dysart Unified, which serves El Mirage and Surprise, showed the biggest gains in students in the county, welcoming about 2,200 more this year.

"With the housing (market) changing, we thought we would see a slowdown," said Scott Thompson, the district's executive director of business services. "It didn't slow down as much as we thought."

Financial hit

Still, when 100-day enrollment projections miss their mark, school districts can take a hit in their pocketbooks. The state pays districts according to January attendance numbers, an average of $6,000 per student, so fewer students mean less money.

Adding to the money problem, many districts allot 85 percent or more of their general funds to teacher salaries and benefits, meaning districts often don't have many reserves for shortfalls, said Joe O'Reilly, Mesa's executive director of student achievement support.

The declines have hurt districts such as Mesa where its 1,500-student decline from last school year represents about $7 million in lost revenue.

The district's options include modifying how the district hires media specialists (school librarians) and nurses so that more aides and assistants are employed instead.

Another possibility includes closing Jordan Elementary, saving an estimated $800,000 in mostly administrative costs. The Mesa school board will vote on the closure Tuesday.

Overall, Mesa administrators estimate having to cut about $20 million in the coming budget year, which begins July 1. The cuts are necessary because of declines in student enrollment, the costs of teaching students English and increased costs of food, gas and other expenses.

"The administration is looking at everything and how to protect the classroom," Mesa board member Cindi Hobbs said. Closing four schools in Tucson would save about $1.8 million for the next school year, said Chyrl Hill Lander, Tucson Unified communications director. The district faces a shortfall of $7 million for next year, she added.

Republic reporters Betty Reid, Lynh Bui, Matt Dempsey, Emily Gersema, Eric Graf, Ryan Konig, Charles Kelly, Jennifer Kitson, Ofelia Madrid, Meghan Moravcik, Sarah McLellan, Rachael Quattrini, Sherry Anne Rubiano and Eugene Scott contributed to this article.