LARA ELLINGSON, JOE O'REILLY, JUSTIN WING

Justin Wing, Joe O'Reilly, Lara Ellingson

It was good news/bad news at the Mesa Public Schools Governing Board meeting this week.

The worst of the news: With enrollment numbers at MPS continuing to fall, schools may have to be closed.

The board also approved an increase for computer hardware and support of $15 million for a new total of $25 million. The good news on that: Through the federal Emergency Connectivity Fund, MPS will be reimbursed for about $10 million in laptop and related purchases for students and staff.

Meanwhile, Assistant Superintendent Justin Wing reported there were 148 vacant teacher positions on July 8 – 52 of them in special education.

“We’re underfunded and undermanned...we need to maximize our resources,” Wing said.

Fifteen positions were filled, leaving 137 vacant instructional positions by the end of July.

“Candidates (were) hired by other districts before MPS was able to hire,” Wing noted. “There continues to be a teacher shortage in Arizona.”

The presentation gave a goal of hiring 200 teachers by March 1.

“When we have substitutes in and out it, becomes very difficult,” noted Genessee Montes, principal of Jefferson Elementary.

Montes, Cheryl Nacsa, a teacher at Franklin East, and Stephanie Montez, principal of Adams Elementary School, are part of the new MPS design team recently formed to tackle the teacher shortage. 

“Teachers want to help kids achieve,” Nacsa said. 

In discussions with fellow teachers, “We talked about how overworked we can be,” she said.

 “What I heard the most was we have all these expectations and high expectations are essential, but we need the time and support to accomplish those goals.”

The team’s “brainstorming” ideas include “increased salaries – to be the district to beat.”

“My peers make a lot more money than I do. It’s a little deflating,” Nacsa said. “This is why we have a shortage. We don’t pay the profession enough.”

According to the MPS website, the average teacher salary in the district is $56,943, a 2 percent increase from last year and a 23 percent increase from the $46,436 average salary three years ago.

Additionally, MPS had 340 vacancies in classified staff.

The design team’s brainstorming ideas included increasing pay and hours so that non-teachers will be eligible for benefits.

MPS has around 10,000 employees. Half are instructors, the other half bus drivers, cafeteria workers, special education assistants and other classified staff.

“It’s a tough labor market,” Marcie Hutchinson, a board member, commented.

Fellow board member Lara Ellingson said the design team’s work was crucial.

“Now what?” Ellingson asked. “Why is Mesa so behind and other districts can get people sooner than us? ...These are amazing suggestions. How do we apply them?”

“It’s going to be challenging,” Wing acknowledged.

Board member Joe O’Reilly said, “I saw the top thing was salary. How do we afford doing this? We have a very set amount of money we get. That’s a challenge.”

Even the bad news about a teacher shortage had a good-news addendum:

The Arizona State University Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College and MPS won an $8.2 million grant over the next three years from the Department of Education.

“The main focus is building human capital management systems to support the next education workforce in Mesa Public Schools,” Wing said.

Recruiting and hiring are part of the grant, Wing noted.

 

‘New reality’: Enrollment drop

More bad news: Enrollment continues to drop.

That could lead to closing and “repurposing” of more schools.

Associate Superintendent Scott Thompson said the “new reality” is MPS has 57,967 students.

“That’s a reduction of almost 4,400 students in three years,” Thompson said.

That, he said, is the equivalent of a reduction of 200 teachers.

The decline of another 1,092 students this year is contrary to a “bounce back” state trend.

 According to the Arizona Department of Education, “From September 2020 to September 2021, schools are seeing an overall student count increase of 3.5 percent.”

At MPS, “the enrollment decline is real,” Thompson said. “It’s affecting our ability to be efficient and effective.”

He asked the board to start thinking about repurposing schools.

“I want to hear what our community thinks,” Ellingson said. “There’s going to be some really hard things coming up.”

“It is a very emotional thing,” O’Reilly agreed. “We do have probably more schools than we need. What I’ve heard is the elementaries are too small and the high schools are too big”

Kiana Sears said this is an opportunity for MPS to consider new ideas. 

“I’m excited about the great partners we have that help us (strategize) around innovation,” she said.

Thompson said he does not expect any changes until the 2024-25 school year.

“Much more to come,” Thompson said. “Tonight was just the beginning of making our public aware.” 

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