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MPS Superintendent Dr. Andi Fourlis helped some kids at Stevenson Elementary School figure out how to use the laptops that the district purchased with the help of $6.5 million in pandemic relief funds. That enabled the district to buy 9,000 devices.

Renovations are in at Mesa Public Schools, but staff reductions are not.

At its March 16 meeting, the MPS Governing Board approved the first chunk of a $40 million – up from $35 million – upgrade at Mountain View High, calendars for the 2022-23 and 2023-24 school years and heard that teacher and staff layoffs are not in the works – despite looming budget question marks.

As for the calendars, the board approved no major changes, other than the addition of two “professional learning days,” with students not in school on days following winter and spring breaks. 

Associate Superintendent Holly Williams said this item had a split response among the 27,826 responses to a district-wide questionnaire on the calendar.

“Staff wanted professional learning days, our families had concerns about additional child care needed,” Williams said. “One of the other concerns that came out in the parent comments doesn’t have to do with the calendar itself: There were comments about providing more consistency in early-release times.”

The board unanimously approved the future school years calendars, which keep fall and spring breaks at one week each, with three days Thanksgiving week and a two-week winter break.

After an upbeat presentation showing COVID-19 numbers continuing to trend downward, Assistant Superintendent of Human Resources Dr. James Driscoll told the board the MPS traditional “huge turnover” is a good thing, this year.

Last month, the board heard of a dramatic drop in enrollment: From 61,344 two years ago to 56,807 this year.

Enrollment is a critical factor in any Arizona school district’s fiscal condition because the state reimburses districts on a per-pupil basis. Budget details for next year have not been provided, although administrators warned the board last fall that the district could be facing hard choices in program funding and overall staffing levels.

Asked if layoffs are a possibility, Driscoll was firm in his response last week.

“We are not instituting a RIF,” he said, using the acronym for 'reduction in force.' “It hasn’t been a recommendation from the superintendent, we haven’t looked at that.”

As other districts are considering staff reductions, Driscoll said MPS staff has expressed concern about layoffs here.

“I tell teachers, ‘No, don’t worry. We’re not RIF-ing,’ ” Driscoll said.

Part of the reason for that, he explained, is that in the first six months of 2020, “We had 1,540 resignations or retirements. This year to date we’re at 492,” he said.

Instead of layoffs, the district has the option of not replacing some of the staff that is gone. “That’s the beauty of Mesa, that we have a large turnover,” Driscoll said.

Driscoll stressed even with 2,000 teachers and staff leaving, “Last year we had really low class sizes. This year, our projections are even with reductions, our class sizes are 26-1 K-3 and 30-1 (grades) 4-12.”

Driscoll said 10 percent of those who resigned or retired listed concerns about COVID-19. Another 14 percent gave the reason for departure as “family considerations,” which Driscoll conjectured could also have to do with the virus.

“I thought the numbers (or departures) were going to be worse. I’m not seeing that. Part of that have been vaccinations, which have helped,” Driscoll said.

The board gave the green light to the first phase of a $70 million, two-school renovation.

An extensive overhaul of Mesa High and Mountain View campuses with some new buildings and additions, revamped athletic fields and other improvements that will cost an estimated $35 million for each school is funded by the $300 million capital bond issue voters approved in 2018.

The $35-million renovation of Mountain View High School is set to begin this spring. The biggest part of that project will be gutting the top floor of the two-story building to create a performing arts addition with studios, a scene shop, backstage, auditorium and rehearsal areas.

The board approved $19.5 million to start on Mountain View, with a central “chiller plant” an addition to previous plans.

“We want to acknowledge our great support from the community,” Assistant Superintendent Scott Thompson said, promising “a similar narrative when we talk about Mesa (High) in a few weeks.” 

He said the chiller will add to the Mountain View price tag, which may end up “closer to $40 million,” but will pay off in the long run: “It’s 22 percent more efficient, so we’re going to see a large reduction in our electric bill.”

And an ionization system will improve air quality, he promised, and “get viruses like COVID out of the air.” 

Thompson promised the money approved by residents will be spent well at Mountain View and Mesa high schools.

“The work we’re doing at these two campuses will be transformational,” he said. “And then we will replicate that out to our other high schools.”

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