School board votes to close Mesa, Brimhall junior highs - East Valley Tribune: East Valley Education News

School board votes to close Mesa, Brimhall junior highs

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Posted: Tuesday, November 8, 2011 8:34 pm | Updated: 5:15 pm, Wed Nov 9, 2011.

Mesa Junior High School -- which opened 59 years ago -- will close at the end of the school year.

The Mesa Unified School District governing board voted 5-0 Tuesday night to close Mesa Junior High, and to close Brimhall Junior High as a neighborhood school, though the Brimhall campus will still be used.

The district plans to move the students and programs at Franklin South, Franklin Junior High and Franklin Northeast schools to the Brimhall campus beginning in fall 2012. Those schools are currently housed in portable buildings. Franklin schools follow a back-to-basics format, with a focus on math, reading and writing.

The decision means the district will transfer more than 1,300 junior high students from Mesa and Brimhall to the district's remaining 11 junior highs. The district's boundary committee is scheduled to meet later this month to begin those plans. District leaders told the governing board last week that Brimhall students may find new homes at Smith, Fremont, Shepherd, and possibly, Taylor, junior highs. Options for Mesa Junior students were still being explored. Public hearings will be held when the proposals are ready.

"I'm just very, very hurt," said Melissa Horton, whose daughter attends Brimhall. "They said they considered all of the options, but I don't think they did. Parents at Brimhall gave other plans other than closing a school where the teachers and students care. ... I'm sad those wonderful teachers will be placed in other places."

The board also approved plans to decommission or demolish unneeded portable buildings at the junior high schools. About 35 people attended Tuesday's meeting.

"There's nothing I can say that will minimize the displacement and frustration the parents will feel," board member Mike Hughes said before the vote. "Yes, we have to right-size the district. Yes, we have to continue to make Mesa No. 1. To do that we have to make decisions, sometimes painful decisions ... I plead with you to give us a chance to make this as seamless as possible."

"I would rather put money into teachers and the supplies they need than into half empty buildings," board member Michelle Udall said prior to the vote.

The decisions Tuesday came after two months of discussion, as well as two public hearings. The district has lost more than 9,000 students over the last five years. There are about 4,353 empty junior high school seats, including in portable buildings, this school year. Much of that can be tied to the move of ninth-graders to the high schools over the past two years.

The district has reduced its budget $110 million over the last five years due to loss of funding from the state and declining enrollment. The governing board asked district leaders to come up with a plan to eliminate excess space around the schools, as well as use funds wisely. School leaders came forward in September with the plans that were approved Tuesday.

"The community recognizes this is a challenging time for Mesa schools and the wonderful staff members at the schools that may be impacted," Superintendent Mike Cowan said prior to the vote.

During public hearings, parents and students said they wanted to know what would happen to some programs at the schools after they close, including the Mariachi Academy at Mesa Junior and special needs programs at Brimhall. District leaders said both programs would be continued at new sites.

The governing board directed Cowan to look for options for the Mesa Junior High School site. Cowan said the district will look to keep the library, auditorium and gymnasium for use by the public, should the site be turned into a community recreation area. The city has expressed interest in making that happen, he has said.

With the closure of the neighborhood campuses, Cowan said the district will provide transportation for students to their new schools, as well as buses for students who stay late for after-school programs. Teachers at both sites will move with students to other schools, Cowan said Tuesday.

In addition, there were questions about bringing elementary and junior high students to Brimhall. The district will continue to keep those programs separate on the site, assistant superintendent Bobette Sylvester said Tuesday. There are currently 947 students at Franklin Northeast and Franklin South who could move to the Brimhall campus, as well as 157 students at Franklin Junior High School.

This is the second time in three years the governing board has closed schools. In 2009, the board closed Powell Junior High and turned Alma Elementary School into a Franklin campus. Franklin schools are popular with parents and students, with waiting lists in most grades around the district. There are currently five Franklin elementary schools, including Franklin South and Franklin Northeast, and one Franklin Junior High School.

The district will start to look at excess capacity in the elementary schools next year, Cowan told the board and audience.

In other actions, the governing board approved the hiring of Paul Boyer as the district's new communications specialist. Boyer is currently communications specialist for the Arizona House of Representatives. In addition, Helen Hollands was hired as the district's new director of communications and marketing. Hollands, a governing board member for the Gilbert Unified School District, most recently served as director of advancement for the College of Technology and Innovation for ASU.

Hollands has been hired at an annual salary of $87,829; Boyer has been hired at an annual salary of $62,183.

The district's current communications director, Kathy Bareiss, will work for the district on the Mesa Counts on College program, funded by a Gates Foundation grant.

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