After seeing years of enrollment decline, Mesa school leaders were hoping for some stability as classes began in August.
Instead, numbers released Friday show a 2,400-student decline, far more than the projected 700-student loss.
There were 67,220 students attending Mesa Unified School District campuses in the third week of the last school year. Now, there are 64,817. Just five years ago, the start of the 2005 school year, there were 74,000 students in the district.
Mesa's elected governing board met Friday with district leaders in a study session as a starting point to see what this means and what needs to happen to address dozens of campuses running far below capacity -- and the fact that the district will lose at least $12 million in state funding next school year.
"As we're trying to be conservative and careful, we're looking at future budget cuts and declining enrollment," board member Mike Hughes said. "We are going to be faced with very tough decisions."
Friday's discussion did not include any solutions - nor was there specific talk about closing schools. But several budget and program options could be available, Superintendent Mike Cowan said, from changing how schools are administered to adding revenue-generating programs to bringing in additional students to the district. Each student adds about $5,000 to the district's budget.
That could make a big impact. The district has lost $85 million in the last three years, mostly from state budget cuts to education, but also from the district's enrollment decline.
"What's daunting as we plan for next year is not so much the decline in students but what's going to come down from the state," said Gerrick Monroe, assistant superintendent for business and support services.
In January, the board voted to close one junior high school, as well as a few smaller sites, and to alter programs on other campuses. In August, the district started the process of moving ninth-graders to the high schools from the junior highs. Three high schools - Skyline, Westwood and Dobson - now have ninth through 12th grades. Ninth-graders will be moved to Mesa, Mountain View and Red Mountain high schools next school year.
Some of Friday's discussion focused on the positive impact that shift has had on junior highs by lowering the number of students there. District leaders said the junior highs now have more scheduling options, and fewer disciplinary problems have been reported in just the first few weeks of school.
Plus, there may be more positive parent perception since the junior highs are now running with fewer students. Not too long ago, some of the junior highs had 1,100 to 1,300 students.
The board asked the administration to come back with recommendations based on keeping a kindergarten-through-sixth grade model at the elementary schools, seventh and eighth grades at the junior highs, and all ninth- through 12th-graders at the high schools.
Last year there was early discussion about moving the sixth grade to the junior highs, but school leaders as well as board members said that option isn't popular with the community. Board members on Friday indicated they do not want to go in that direction.
Plus, the smaller junior highs may be more attractive to parents. Another piece of the discussion Friday was about how to better market the district and its smaller focus schools like the newly created Summit Academy, back-to-basics Franklin campuses and other programs.
Board members said any decisions need to include consideration for the future, and not just the decline of the last few years.
"It's hard to make projections given what's happened the last two to three years," Joe O'Reilly, the district's executive director for student achievement support, pointed out. "We thought it would stabilize this year, but that's not what's happened."
The district will try to provide the board with a range for future projections, O'Reilly said, by looking at foreclosures, kindergarten classes and other data.
"We cannot underestimate the influence of political action and how it influences our community," Superintendent Cowan told the board. "Whether it's Senate Bill 1070 (the state's new illegal immigration law) or any other piece of legislation, as that goes into effect or is placed permanently on the shelf, it will have a real impact on our community."
Cowan estimated about two-thirds of the student loss this year may be associated with SB 1070, which was signed by Gov. Jan Brewer last spring. Much of the law has been put on hold by the courts, but advocates for immigrants said it spread enough fear among the Hispanic community that some families packed up and moved from the state.