Governing Board candidates take a look at enrollment, $229 million bond initiative

0907Ns Education (Candidate QA)

There are three qualified candidates running for three open seats on the Scottsdale Unified School District Governing Board at the Nov. 8 general election.

The candidates running for the board are incumbent Barbara Perleberg, and newcomers Allyson Beckham and Sandy Kravetz.

Former candidates George Jackson and Mary Roaf have both withdrawn from the race.

School board members serve a four-year term on the board. Members Pam Kirby and Kim Hartmann’s terms end at the end of 2018.

Scottsdale Schools includes 30 schools serving about 24,500 students, according to the district’s website. More than 3,000 people are employed by the district, including about 1,550 teachers.

The district’s boundaries include most, but not all of, the city of Scottsdale, Town of Paradise Valley and sections of the cities of Phoenix and Tempe.

Additionally, Scottsdale Schools voters will also be deciding upon a $229 million bond initiative and an $8.5 million capital override at the November general election.

The Scottsdale Independent is hosting a candidate forum in the Kiva at City Hall, 3939 N. Drinkwater Blvd. 6-8 p.m. on Monday, Oct. 3. Independent reporter Melissa Fittro will be moderating the forum.

Leading up to the October forum the Scottsdale Independent is offering candidates an opportunity to participate in a question-and-answer series to help voters better understand where they stand on local issues that matter.

This week’s installment covers the candidates opinions of the district’s enrollment trends and how this effects asking for a bond initiative worth over $200 million.

Allyson Beckham

•Is SUSD a declining-enrollment district?

“We can’t go forward if we don’t understand our current reality.” This is how Superintendent Birdwell began last week’s Governing Board meeting as she presented the district’s enrollment data. The data showed a decline of about 100 students from the previous school year, which is actually an improvement from the much larger annual declines over the last five years.

Allyson Beckham

Allyson Beckham

While enrollment has declined — albeit less than in past years — the way the district is approaching this data has changed. The new superintendent and administration are analyzing the trends and asking the right questions: why are students leaving the district? And, what can we do about it? This public acknowledgment of the issue and proactive method to address it are positive steps in the right direction for our district’s leadership.

SUSD is a strong school district with a long history and sound reputation. However, I’ve watched as past leadership lost its focus, direction, and competitive edge. Many families left the district when the administration was unresponsive to their students’ needs — resulting in declined enrollment. With the new superintendent and a new voting majority in the Governing Board, I believe the decline will reverse and enrollment will increase once again. The most imperative actions the district can take will be improving student achievement and teacher effectiveness to bring back students to the district.

•Looking at the enrollment situation, do you think it’s appropriate to issue $200 million in capital bond debt?

I believe enrollment trends will reverse and increase with new leadership when there is a focus on student outcomes, teacher effectiveness, and quality instruction. Therefore, enrollment is not a determining factor for why I support the $229 million bond.

I support the bond because SUSD should invest in its schools’ infrastructure to ensure the facilities provide a safe and functional environment for higher learning. Since the state does not fund structural improvements for existing schools, our local community is responsible for investing in our local district.

To be clear, the approval of the bond should not be seen as a blank check to be spent over seven years without oversight or careful discernment. With this investment, the Governing Board has a responsibility to taxpayers to ensure the funds are spent wisely and allocated appropriately. Of the proposed $229 million in capital bond debt, 56.6 percent will be used to rebuild eight schools, and 21.5 percent will go toward long-term repairs that are needed in all of the district’s schools. (A full breakdown of the bond’s intended uses can be found on the SUSD website under “Elections.”)

It’s important that over the seven-year period, the district administration will annually assess the state of our schools and how to best allocate the capital using data and analysis. Then, the Governing Board will determine each year whether to issue bonds to cover these capital improvements.

In making these decisions, I have confidence in our district’s new leadership, in the city of Scottsdale’s economy, and in our community’s desire to educate our children to their fullest potential.

Sandy Kravetz

•Is SUSD a declining-enrollment district?

Currently, SUSD is a declining enrollment district. Data from the Arizona Department of Education clearly indicates that for at least the past five years parents in our district are choosing other options, such as charter, private, home or online schools for their children.

As Dr. Denise Birdwell, our district’s superintendent, noted in her comments at the Businesses United for Scottsdale Schools breakfast this past Tuesday, SUSD “has lost 200 students per year for the past six years.” This year our enrollment decreased by only 46 students to date. Perhaps this signifies a change in the trend?

Sandy Kravetz

Sandy Kravetz

Why is our district experiencing a decline? Previous superintendents ignored this issue and neglected to conduct comprehensive exit interviews of those that leave SUSD. The most recent survey of just six parents — four that moved out of district and two that enrolled — was conducted by the past administration in January 2014. I am heartened that Dr. Birdwell will be querying parents in greater depth to find out why they are leaving SUSD for charter, private or online options or never enrolling in our district schools at all.

Some of the themes that emerged in the 2014 study included the following perceptions about SUSD schools: a) lack of academic rigor, b) concern for the social/emotional development of child — ex: bullying, c) lack of customer service. Even though this was a minuscule study, the answers seem to have validity and resonance among parents. I have asked moms with children no longer in SUSD “Why did you move your child?” I have heard answers that included: lack of rigor, smaller class sizes elsewhere, overall smaller school, and a lack of responsiveness to classroom concerns by SUSD site and/or district administrators.

In addition to educating our students, SUSD is in the customer service business. Our district must be responsive and respectful of parent concerns. To compete with alternative schools and stabilize our enrollment, we must show our stakeholders that our district provides the best education possible with the best customer service.

•Looking at the enrollment situation, do you think it’s appropriate to issue $200 million in capital bond debt?

For many years our state has been neglecting its obligation to fund building improvements and maintenance. SUSD has been deprived of approximately $37 million for facilities in the past six years. As a result, school districts, such as ours must ask its communities to fund the repairs and rebuilds that the state refuses to subsidize.

Several of our elementary schools built in the 1960s are outdated, and need a renovation or a total rebuild. While enrollment at some of our schools has dipped, Hopi Elementary School’s enrollment is over capacity. Cheyenne Traditional School, a K-8 with robust enrollment does not have a gym and its science labs are housed in portable buildings.

Our students deserve to learn, and our teachers work, in safe and up-to-date environments. SUSD does an admirable job of extending the life of its buildings and using them until their last gasp. However, when teachers have to consider whether plugging in one more device will short the electrical system or when plumbing can no longer ensure a sanitary school, then it’s time to ask our community to pass a bond.

Approximately more than 55 percent of the bond sales are earmarked for new construction. More than 20 percent is allocated for building life cycle improvements including: heating and air conditioning, interior finishes, improvements to performing arts centers and roof repair/ replacements.

It should be noted that bonds will be sold in blocks of approximately $40 million, over six years and can be invested in our community in a 10-year span.

Therefore, the governing board will have flexibility regarding their issuance depending on specific needs at each school/learning community. While the current Governing Board has placed the bond on the ballot, this vote is equally a referendum on whether or not the community trusts the incoming board of incumbents Pam Kirby, Kim Hartmann, Barbara Perleberg and new comers Allyson Beckham and myself along with the superintendent to be prudent and conservative with these expenditures.

Barbara Perleberg

•Is SUSD a declining-enrollment district?

Our district’s overall trend has been one of decline over the last several years. Increased competition has obviously been a significant factor in that trend.

•Looking at the enrollment situation, do you think it’s appropriate to issue $200 million in capital bond debt?

Barbara Perleberg

Barbara Perleberg

Mapping out SUSD’s future is not an easy task. We cannot ignore our district’s enrollment issues and the costs of maintaining extra space, but we also cannot ignore so many of our schools in dire need of safety updates and long-overdue maintenance. In addition, we have schools over 50 years old that have strong enrollment, solid academic achievement and are unquestionably in need of a rebuild.

Under the leadership of our new Superintendent, Dr. Birdwell, we are asking voters to approve a bond with a “maximum” dollar amount. I support Dr. Birdwell’s recommendation that the potential sale of each bond be divided over a six-year period in approximately $40 million increments. That allows our board — and thus our community — to define priorities year-by-year and justify each bond sale. If there is no justification to sell a bond — we don’t do it.

This approach provides the flexibility to respond to our changing competitive environment. Dr. Birdwell is laser-focused on driving academic achievement in SUSD and is ready to get to work with honesty and transparency. I am optimistic that her sense of urgency will drive quick results in academics and enrollment. However, it is impossible to predict how quickly, and how significantly, SUSD will see the benefits of these efforts. I understand that consolidation may be an unavoidable part of a long-term fiscally sound solution. The process we are committed to for the bond, however, allows these decisions to be informed and timed appropriately while meeting the needs of our students.

Northeast Valley News Services Editor Melissa Fittro can be e-mailed at mfittro@newszap.com or can be followed on Twitter at twitter.com/melissafittro.

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