Rapid home construction has created fertile ground for new public schools in east Mesa — and as many as four new campuses will open east of Higley Road by 2006. But none of the activity will involve the Mesa Unified School District.
Instead, each campus will be a charter school.
Despite market demand, the Mesa district cannot build new schools because of declining enrollment farther west that has caused the district’s overall size to level off in recent years at about 76,000 students. State funding for school district construction is based strictly on overall enrollment.
"We’ve been put at a disadvantage by being a large, consolidated school district," said Chuck Essigs, a school finance consultant who lobbies for the Mesa district at the state Capitol.
Essigs said the state tries to persuade small school districts to consolidate, but the current funding formula for school construction creates a counterincentive.
If the Mesa district divided itself up, he said east Mesa as a district on its own would receive state funding for new schools. He said a similar situation exists in the Scottsdale Unified School District, which has high growth in north Scottsdale but declining enrollment overall.
Charter school entrepreneurs, meanwhile, have been happy to move in where the Mesa district cannot.
"We’ve done a study on the growth, and that’s where it’s happening — east Mesa," said charter school operator Lynette Stansbury, who plans to serve about 600 students at Franklin High School in east Mesa starting in 2006. "They can’t seem to build homes fast enough."
Kathy Tolman, another charter school operator, has responded to the same market demand.
She opened Legacy Elementary School near Main Street and Sossoman Road in 2001 and is now converting a church building farther east into East Valley High School. That campus will open in August and eventually serve about 450 students.
"The schools are very crowded out here," Tolman said. "It’s an extremely fastgrowing area."
She said charter school operators face challenges of their own that make it difficult to open schools. The biggest obstacle, she said, is lining up investors and private funding.
"I have to personally guarantee the loan before I can build," she said.
Much of the growth in east Mesa and elsewhere in Arizona has involved retired couples relocating here. But young families have also flocked to Arizona and started shopping for schools.
"Parents want more choices and more empowerment," said charter school operator Nathan Sproul, who will open the Pilgrim and Mayflower charter elementary schools in 2006 at East Valley sites not yet determined.
While the number of schoolchildren ages 5 to 13 declined nationwide in 2004, the U.S. Census Bureau estimated this month that Arizona gained 8,400 elementary school students last year — more than any other state.
Overall, Arizona has gained more than 115,000 schoolchildren ages 5 to 17 since 2000 to push the state total past 1.1 million. About 11,000 of them live in Mesa, where the median age in the city dropped from 32 in 2000 to less than 31 today.
Despite the numbers, evidence suggests the eastward push has already crested in Mesa and is now moving into Pinal County.
Home building permits dropped in Mesa from 2,449 in 2003 to 1,161 in 2004. But in Pinal County, permits shot up from 4,828 in 2003 to 8,890 in 2004.
Enrollment figures in the Mesa district also suggest slower growth. The district reached 50,000 students in 1985 and then soared to 70,000 students by 1995. During the next decade the district added only about 6,000 students.
The years of rapid growth, however, enabled the Mesa district to open Skyline High School in 1999, Smith Junior High School in 2001 and Zaharis Elementary School in 2002 — all in east Mesa. Those schools capped a flurry of construction that added 31 schools to the district in 20 years and established Mesa Unified as the state’s largest district.
WINNING BACK STUDENTS
The charter school movement has also cut into the Mesa district’s growth.
Since the state’s charter school law took effect in 1995, more than 30 charter schools have opened in Mesa.
A 2002 report from the National Center for Education Statistics showed that 82,705 children between the ages of 5 and 17 lived in the Mesa district in 2002, but 73,587 attended district schools. The numbers mean about 9,000 students — more than one in 10 within the district — attended charter, private or home schools.
The Mesa district has taken steps to win back these students with programs that cater to niche markets. The district has four back-to-basics elementary schools, an art magnet program at Highland Elementary School and tuition-free Montessori programs at Johnson and Mendoza elementary schools and the Sunridge Learning Center.
"The Mesa district began listening more closely to parents’ wishes," national researchers Bryan C. Hassel and Michelle Godard Terrell wrote in a 2004 report for the Progressive Policy Institute in Washington, D.C.