The budget challenge facing Arizona schools today is like nothing that’s happened before in Superintendent Debra Duvall’s nearly 27 years with the Mesa Unified School District.
“Not with the double whammy we’re getting with the enrollment and the economy and legislative action,” Duvall said during a recent interview with the Tribune.
Many, she said, could feel the impact as Arizona’s largest school district copes with a shrinking student body bringing in less state funding.
Fewer classes. Fewer teachers. Fewer jobs in a 10,000-employee school system that employs more people than any other business, public or private, in Mesa.
Arizona’s school leaders are bracing for a tough legislative session, with the state facing a $1.6 billion deficit this year and a possible $3 billion deficit next year.
“These next two years will be more challenging to school finance in districts than in any time I can remember,” said Chuck Essigs, government relations director for the Arizona Association of School Business Officials. Essigs, former business superintendent for the Mesa district, has worked in Arizona school finance for 30 years.
“Most of the downturns we’ve had in the economy have been short-lived,” he said.
“This one will not be.”
Perhaps no district is anticipating the financial outcome of legislative decisions more than Mesa. The district has lost 4,000-plus students — and about $4,500 per student in state funding — since the start of the 2004-05 school year.
Duvall stands at the helm of the nearly 70,000-student district. But she is only there a few more months.
This summer, Duvall will vacate the superintendency, a position she has held since 2000. She announced her pending retirement last fall. She started with the Mesa district as a teacher in 1971, left for a while, then returned in 1987.
Her last year is being spent listening and looking for solutions, financial fixes that may not be easy. The district’s leaders are already considering what can be done in the next year to help solve a shrinking budget.
“This has not been thrust upon us,” Duvall said of the fiscal strain. “It has been a gradual level of awareness and impact on the state and the nation as a whole. To some degree, we’ve been anticipating what we can do.”
One example, Duvall said, could be to increase some class sizes, not allowing too many classes to be filled with a small number of students, especially at the high school level.
The master schedules of the junior highs and high schools around the district are being scrutinized in terms of the number of students in individual classes each class period, Duvall said. While now there may be 17 students in a French III class and eight students in a French IV class, next year there may be a combined French III/IV class.
“There will be fewer classes with less than the expected number of students,” Duvall said, adding that more high school classes could be filled at the 26- to 28-student level.
That’s not all dollars and cents, Duvall said. By shifting more students into one class, it could free up a teacher for another section of a different class that’s needed.
But it may also mean fewer teachers because the number of teaching positions is based on enrollment.
The average school size in Mesa is on the decline.
“Twelve or 15 years ago, the average elementary school had 800 students,” she said.
That would now be considered high enrollment. There are 15 to 20 elementary schools now with enrollment in the 600s. At one point, there were elementary schools with more than 1,000 students.
But more important than the number of students on a campus, Duvall said, are class sizes.
“We try to keep class sizes in a range. If anything, they’ve gone down through the years,” she said.
With the budget made up mainly of salaries and benefits, there may be jobs lost.
Looking into the future, and the need to make cuts, district leadership last year examined what positions could go. The Mesa district’s media specialists — the term used for school librarians — were informed their jobs were going to be eliminated. But more than 90 percent of them were able to stay employed in the district, filling open certified teacher positions.
If there are budget cuts for next year, however, those hit may not be so lucky.
“There may be people who find themselves without employment,” Duvall said.
A number of employees in the Mesa school district either do not have a contract or are on a one-year contract. They are not guaranteed employment year-to-year, Duvall said.
District officials began realizing in late 2007 the magnitude of the issues they would be facing. That’s when enrollment projections started to show a high level of downturn.
Even with those projections, the district’s enrollment when school started in August was 500 less than expected. The district anticipated about a 1,400- to 1,500-student loss for the 2008-09 school year. That number appears to be closer to 1,900.
Duvall sent her staff into action, taking a look now at what the future may hold so it’s not faced with a crisis later.
The district put a hiring freeze in place near the end of 2007 for nonclassroom teaching positions, and again at the end of 2008 to prepare for any legislative action. Each month, the district monitors enrollment and forecasts changes.
“Now we have ideas of the number of teachers we would need as we advance students,” Duvall said. “As we talk about textbooks, as we talk about furniture, it helps us in our planning.”
Another step the district is taking is to examine what programs and services were offered in the years when enrollment was similar to today, Duvall said. Seeing what was offered then can give the district some idea of what could be offered — or eliminated — again.
But district leaders also have to take into consideration the programs mandated by the state since 2000. Not all of them came with the funds necessary to run them.
This year alone, the district had to put a structured English immersion program in place to the tune of $6.5 million. The state gave Mesa schools $1.8 million, said Gerrick Monroe, associate superintendent for business and support services.
One hope education proponents have is that any budget change from the state will come with the chance to shift money from one area to another — a chance to have more flexibility with the fewer funds schools do receive, said Rep. Rich Crandall, R-Mesa, chairman of the House education committee and a former member of the Mesa district’s governing board.
Duvall has set into motion one other change. With her retirement, she announced her support of associate superintendent Mike Cowan to move into the top job. The district’s governing board — including three new members — will tackle the job of naming Duvall’s replacement early this year.
Duvall said she doesn’t believe her departure will place any more stress on the district.
“We’ve been fiscally responsible,” she said. “I work closely with the assistant superintendents and associate superintendent. We have a very strong team, and when one member changes it shouldn’t affect the functioning of the group.”
Plus, she hopes some of the issues the district is struggling with will be short-lived.
“Certainly there are some things you hope will be temporary,” she said.