The Mesa Unified School District has lost nearly 4,800 students in the last three years and with them, millions of dollars in funding. It's a challenge that has led to staffing cuts and talks of school closings.
Five candidates are vying for a chance to take on those challenges and help guide the 69,700-student district into the future.
Kate J. Ali'varius, Lance Entrekin, Michael Nichols, Steven Peterson and Ben Whiting are campaigning to take one of three seats opening next year on the five-member board. Board members Cindi Hobbs, Rich Crandall and Lynn Burnham are not seeking re-election. David Lane and Mike Hughes are in the middle of their four-year terms.
Add to the to-do list for next year another hurdle: finding a superintendent. Longtime leader Debra Duvall announced she will retire in summer.
That may be the easier of the tasks. Mesa has a veteran administration behind Duvall with at least one internal candidate - current associate superintendent of educational services Michael Cowan - named as a possible replacement.
"With the selection of the superintendent, we have been very lucky in Mesa," Entrekin said. During the past 40 years, the district has had four superintendents, with three of them in place for long assignments: George Smith, Jim Zaharis and Duvall.
"All of them were leaders, not just managers," Entrekin said. "They had a long-term vision for the district. What made them effective is they were involved with the community and cared about the community."
Peterson agreed with Entrekin that community involvement is key. That is one reason, he said, if elected he'll look at possible leaders already in Mesa.
"The current recommendation is that Dr. Cowan be selected," said Peterson. "We will look internally first. That will be our first priority. To look externally can cost a quarter of a million dollars and that can be risky."
The new governing board will also have to look at budget issues for the 2009-10 school year. Declining enrollment has harmed the district, the candidates said.
Outgoing board member Crandall said there are a number of important issues to deal with.
"Overshadowing is the state budget because that will have a trickle-down effect on the schools," Crandall said. "We have already seen the impact on the cities having to cut budgets and make layoffs.
"Districts are not immune from it though their funding stream is a bit different. Districts are going to have tight budgets ahead. They're going to have to deal with the consequence of the state budget. No one knows what that's going to mean for Arizona school districts, let alone the Mesa school district."
While the Legislature is prohibited from cutting general funding to kindergarten through 12th grade education in Arizona, there are other areas of school funding that may be targeted, as they have already. The state School Facilities Board was ordered to stop payments to building maintenance funds this year, forcing school districts to dip into funds in other areas when necessary.
Ali'varius said she would like to see the district try to capture more out-of-district students to help boost enrollment. She said more partnerships need to be formed with the community to identify possible areas of development that might draw in families and students.
"That's the only way you're going to figure out where the enrollment is going to come from ... and how to satisfy the people coming into your schools," she said.
Along that line, Nichols said, there are a number of educational opportunities available in the district that need to be marketed to draw in students. From the district's Mesa Academy to Montessori programs to classes for home-schooled students, getting the word out on these can help boost enrollment numbers.
"We'll hopefully get some of the parents who are on the boundary lines to cross boundary lines or get those within the boundaries to opt back from charters and private schools into the system," Nichols said.
Since the budget is tied directly to enrollment, money issues are at the forefront.
"I think one of the biggest issues is being able to continue to deliver the quality product we're used to with finite resources," Whiting said. "We'll need to learn to manage those resources better.
One fiscal issue that the new board will face is a possible maintenance and operations budget override election in November 2009, Whiting said. In Arizona, a school district's budget is limited by the state and based on enrollment. Every few years, districts can ask voters to tax themselves to give a district up to 10 percent more than its allotted budget by the state.
"That money goes straight to our classrooms to help attract teachers and retain the ones we have," Whiting said.