Established districts losing students
The Arizona Republic
Jan. 17, 2007

Millions of dollars at stake in Phoenix, Mesa, Scottsdale schools

Josh Kelley
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 Scottsdale.

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 districts.

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 schools.

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 they live.

"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?"
Baracy asked.

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.