Enrollment in the Mesa Unified School District is down by some 1,400 students this year, the biggest decrease in recent memory, officials said.
Last year, the district lost about 560 students. The year before, its enrollment dropped by nearly 700 students.
But this year’s sharp decline — based on enrollment numbers from the tenth day of school — caught many in the district by surprise, said Mike Hughes, who has sat on the district’s school board for 13 years.
“It’s going to have a negative impact on our budget,” he said. “We’re really trying to get our arms around this because it’s higher than we anticipated, and I know other districts are also down.”
A loss in students equals a loss in state funding, since school districts are funded on a per-pupil basis.
Officials don’t know yet how the enrollment decline will impact Mesa, but it could be a multi-million dollar loss. School districts get an average of $4800 per student, said Chuck Essigs, a spokesman for the Arizona Association of School Business Officials.
Mesa educators cite a variety of possible factors for the decline.
Districts in areas where real estate is less expensive — such as the Higley, Florence, Combs and Queen Creek unified school districts — are growing, Hughes said.
He also believes the passage of tougher immigration laws — like those that make people prove citizenship for some public services and that give harsher penalties to employers who hire illegal immigrants — might have led some families to leave town.
“The immigration issues certainly could be a contributing factor, because, from a preliminary point of view, it looks like the biggest drops appear to be where we have the highest numbers of the Hispanic population,” he said.
But one factor that Hughes does not believe led to the higher-than-anticipated decline is competition with charter schools.
District officials would not yet discuss reasons for the decline.
“We have some ideas that we think might have caused our drop in enrollment, but we’re not ready to speculate at this point,” said district spokeswoman Kathy Bareiss. “Next week, we’re going to look at our enrollment data and try to pinpoint some of those issues.”
At 561 students, Eisenhower Elementary School in west Mesa is seeing the lowest enrollment since principal Pat Estes came to the school eight years ago.
“I’ve never started a year below 750,” she said.
Like Hughes, Estes says she has heard anecdotal evidence that both higher real estate and rents in the area, as well as recent anti-illegal immigration laws, could be behind the decline.
Also, the city of Mesa is selling the Escobedo housing project, where about 50 of her students live. Some of those families may have already moved out, she said.
The lower enrollment is making the school combine two of its kindergarten classrooms, and one teacher will be transferred to a different school on Monday.
Meanwhile, some Mesa schools are actually seeing higher enrollments.
At Rhodes Junior High School in west Mesa’s Dobson Ranch area, enrollment is about 82 students above what officials had projected, said principal Matt Devlin.
Last year, the school had about 1,000 students. Now, it’s at 1,038.
Devlin said the staff is working hard to make sure its enrollment doesn’t dip by emphasizing quality customer service and offering creative programs.
“You can’t really be a comprehensive junior high with, for example, a full-time band director when you start slipping below 1,000,” he said. “The same things with chorus and drama, and all those things we’re known for.”
And Zaharis Elementary School in far east Mesa, is “bursting at the seams,” according to principal Mike Oliver.
“We don’t have a lot more room to grow,” he said. “We have a long waiting list.”
The school also benefits from open enrollment policies, through which 308 of the school’s 885 students come from seven different cities to attend the school.
“We’re taking an unconventional approach that a lot of people are interested in, hence the enrollment,” he said.