The Mesa school board was not ready to commit to the idea of closing elementary schools Tuesday without diving into more data from the district.
The Mesa Unified School District governing board members asked district leaders to give them more information about how school buildings are being used, what community involvement is at the schools and what future growth or population decline may be.
During the last few years, the board has voted to close three junior high schools — turning one into an education center and moving back-to-basics programs to another — as a way to address declining enrollment. It’s also moved ninth-graders to the high schools.
Total enrollment in the district this year was 63,961. Just eight years ago, the district had nearly 75,000 students.
Looking simply at enrollment vs. square footage at the elementary schools, the district appears to have more than 6,000 empty seats, using state-guided analysis that recommends 90 square feet per pupil.
But that analysis calculates everything, from portable classrooms to hallways to multipurpose buildings and auditoriums. It doesn’t take into account larger hallways that may have been built so kids don’t have to walk outdoors in Arizona’s heat or space for a parent resource room or special education classroom, assistant superintendent Bobette Sylvester told the board.
“This is mathematical, but we need to talk about the higher concepts of community schools vs. utilization,” she said.
In fact, if the district analyzed the same information using the figure of 100 square feet per student, there wouldn’t be enough space.
“We really need to look at all of that data,” board member Michelle Udall said. “Are there schools that are not benefiting our students or are there schools that are not cost effective? … If there are schools that show up as money drainers, we need to look at closing those. We just really need to look at what’s going to be most cost effective.”
The board did leave open the idea of school closures, but first wants to see about removing portable classrooms that are not needed for critical programs, consider what would happen if boundaries were shifted and reanalyze the amount of space needed per student to a higher level than recommended by the state.
Given that there are more than 400 portable classrooms in use in the elementary schools, one possible change is the removal of those that are older and out-of-shape or not in use. But some of those are used for teachers during “pull-out” programs for more small group learning. Others are offices.
The idea wouldn’t be to just remove all of them, but to look at specifically what’s taking place between those walls.
Board members also suggested that it could be beneficial to retire older buildings — rather than entire schools — from the inventory.
Part of the board’s conversation during the study session stemmed from a community committee’s belief in smaller elementary schools, as well as the fluctuating changes of Mesa’s population.
Analysis of the district’s enrollment since the 2007-2008 school year shows increases and decreases all over its 200 square miles.
“There is no pattern of where we lost students or where we picked up students. It’s all over the map. That should tell you something,” Sylvester said.
Enrollment projections show pockets of growth over the next 10 years, combined areas of decline, for an overall stagnant picture.
The city is also experiencing a 17 percent residential vacancy rate, she said.
“That could be potential for growth” as the economy improves, she said.
The board members did agree the district should leave room for student fluctuations.
Another consideration is funding. The district doesn’t have the money right now to remove portable classrooms or drastically consolidate schools, Sylvester said. A $230 million bond question will go before voters in November to address technology needs for the schools, as well as facility improvements.
Superintendent Mike Cowan said his staff would look at all the questions from the board and provide answers to back up any recommendations regarding changes at the elementary schools.
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