District targets Mesa, Brimhall junior high schools for closure, change - East Valley Tribune: East Valley Education News

District targets Mesa, Brimhall junior high schools for closure, change

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Posted: Tuesday, September 27, 2011 8:45 pm | Updated: 8:34 pm, Tue Oct 18, 2011.

The Mesa Unified School District governing board could vote as soon as November to close Mesa Junior High School and convert Brimhall Junior High School into a Franklin back-to-basics campus next school year.

The board made the decision to move forward with recommendations from district officials during a meeting Tuesday night.

District leaders announced the proposals as a way to eliminate about 2,700 of 4,000 empty seats at Mesa's current 13 junior high schools.

The governing board asked district administrators earlier this year to come up with a way to address the excess capacity at the junior high schools created from both a decline in enrollment and the move of ninth-graders to the district's six high schools during the last two years. District officials were also asked to find ways to save funds and use buildings in other ways.

Mesa has 64,269 students enrolled this year in kindergarten through 12th grade, down from around 72,000 at the start of the 2005 school year. The district cut its budget by millions over the past few years - $33 million last year alone - as the state cut education funding and enrollment declined.

Mesa and Brimhall were chosen for a number of reasons. Bobette Sylvester, assistant superintendent for business services, said staff looked at how many students attend each junior high, how old the buildings are, what maintenance repairs are needed, how much it costs to run utilities and student achievement.

At 666 students, Brimhall has the fewest number of junior high students. But because the building itself is newer, it makes it a good site to keep. One option presented Tuesday is to move three of the district's popular Franklin schools - Franklin Northeast, Franklin South and Franklin Junior High - to the Brimhall campus. All three are currently housed in campuses created from portable buildings. And, Franklin South is adjacent to the Brimhall campus.

If that choice is agreed upon when the board votes - as early as Nov. 8 -- there would be about 1,000 students on the Brimhall campus.

Cowan told the board that putting an attractive education program - such as a Franklin school - could bring in charter school students or homeschool students. More students could bring in more funds to Mesa Unified.

Governing board member Mike Hughes agreed.

"We would be able to potentially attract from the neighboring school districts. (Brimhall's) location would allow for that," he said.

Brimhall Junior High is located north of U.S. 60 near Higley Road.

The governing board could also consider using the site for other educational programs.

"One of the challenges is the thinking, ‘This is a done deal,'" Superintendent Mike Cowan said prior to Tuesday night's meeting. "That is not the case with this governing board."

He said the governing board is very open to community input. He encouraged the public to present any concerns during the public hearings or by sending in online comments.

Under the presented plan, Mesa Junior High would be demolished. The district wants to work with the city to transform the site into a recreation hub that could include soccer fields, parks, or other sports venues. Cowan said he has met with city leaders to start generating ideas for the site.

"When I first heard the recommendation, my heart skipped a beat. After all, Mesa Junior is my alma mater. Same for my siblings, my mother ... My grandfather taught there 42 years," board member Ben Whiting said. "But when I thought about it, these (recommendations) are exactly what we asked of the superintendency to address the issues we have in the district in terms of capacity."

Built in 1952, Mesa Junior High is 59 years old, making it the oldest junior high school in the district. It would cost the district more than $4 million to just maintain the campus over the next five years, Sylvester said.

Mesa Junior needs repairs or replacement of the campus cooling and heating system, electrical system and insulation.

The district estimates the closure of Mesa Junior High and the repurposing of Brimhall could save the district $2.3 million annually between administrative, operational and utility costs, with an additional one-time savings of $4.5 million because of the needed repairs at Mesa Junior.

District leaders are also proposing demolishing or selling all the "unneeded" portables on the junior high school campuses district-wide. There are currently 33 in use.

"When I say sell, that is something we will attempt to do ... but it might be difficult," because of the age of the portables, Sylvester said.

If the governing board approves the plans, the district's boundary committee would have to come up with new school boundaries for next school year for those areas that currently feed into Mesa Junior High and Brimhall. It could have a ripple-effect.

"These changes, if approved, would likely impact most junior high boundaries in our district," Cowan said.

"We understand this is challenging for families, for students, and certainly for our staff," he said. "We are trying to do this as open as we can."

Cowan noted that there would be no reduction of teacher contracts as a result of the proposed changes. Administrators, clerical and custodial staff impacted would have a chance to apply for other jobs in the district, he said.

Staff at Mesa and Brimhall junior highs were told of the recommendations Tuesday after school. Letters will be sent home with students who may be impacted, as well as mailed to their homes.

Students at the Franklin schools that could be moved will also receive letters informing them of the recommendations.

This is third phase of the district's "Defining the Future" plan, a process that Cowan initiated when he became superintendent in 2008. Cowan has said it's a way to "right size" the district, as well as provide educational opportunities the community wants.

During the last two years, the district closed Powell Junior High School and transferred smaller school campuses to the site. It also converted Alma Elementary School into a Franklin, back-to-basics school. There are currently six Franklin schools in the district.

The next "Defining the Future" phase will be next year when the district will analyze capacity and use of elementary schools and administrative buildings.

The district's presentation on the proposals can be found online at www.mpsaz.org/future. There, the community can also provide feedback.

Public hearings on the school closures and changes will be 6 p.m. Oct. 4 and Oct. 18, at Mesa and Brimhall junior highs, respectively. The hearings can also be seen live on the district's website, and taped for future showings on EdTV, Cox Channel 99.

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