Peterson: Scottsdale Unified School District on other side of mass exodus

Top district officials last June discussing the results of an Arizona Auditor General's audit results. (File photo)

Top district officials last June discussing the results of an Arizona Auditor General’s audit results. (File photo)

Over the past few years Scottsdale Unified School District has lost considerable student enrollment to charter institutions or surrounding school districts, and since Arizona school districts receive public funding based entirely on the amount of students they serve that loss has directly resulted in fewer overall dollars for the district.

Stemming that exodus and luring students back have been major goals of district officials and the governing board. The most recent statistics provided to the Independent show — at least on the surface — that the district may be making progress and that mass exodus may have subsided.

One governing board member, however, disputes the latest numbers and claims little or no progress has been made by SUSD in retaining its student population.

“It tells me that we have stopped the decline, which I think is huge — but until we get the data at the 100-day mark these are all soft numbers,” said Scottsdale Schools Superintendent Dr. David Peterson in an Oct. 20 phone interview.

According to an Oct. 7 SUSD enrollment report, there are 23,612 students — excluding preschool students — attending SUSD schools compared to the 23,583 total enrollment at the 100-day mark last school year. But Scottsdale Unified School District Governing Board member Pam Kirby contends total enrollment in October 2014 was 23,781, which equates to an apples to apples comparison showing an overall enrollment decrease of 169 students.

Ms. Kirby gleaned the data from Arizona Department of Education October 2014 enrollment figures available at www.azed.gov.

Superintendent Peterson says he is confident the latest numbers show steady enrollment at Scottsdale Schools for this current school year.

“We had a major exodus two years ago,” he said. “It looks like we are getting back to growth and our preschool enrollment is very robust. We are seeing new families with kids coming into preschools. We have stopped the decline and we have just plateaued and edged up a hair.”

According to the enrollment data, 14 of the 30 brick-and-mortar schools within SUSD are seeing declining enrollment of varying degrees ranging from a handful of students to several dozen, while 16 of the schools reported seeing noticeable increases.

“Our fate is really in those numbers, we all live and die by them,” Superintendent Peterson pointed out. “We look at trends but until you get the solid data you really don’t know what it is. We have some growth and some decline in our schools.”

Superintendent Peterson says he and his staff are routinely meeting with parents to understand better why some schools lose students while others are seeing increases.

“We are trying to get a handle on those numbers. I think if we are seeing a decline of more than 10 students we need to follow up with that school,” he said. “We have personally contacted 70 families to understand why they are leaving our district. Our goal is that personal followup.”

Class size continues to be a deal-breaker for Scottsdale Schools parents.

“Probably the biggest thing we are hearing is class size, but we are also seeing that our competition are having (issues with) class sizes,” Superintendent Peterson said. “I have done a number of walkthroughs. A year ago, people were doom and gloom because we lost the override for the second time, but this year the climate is a complete 180.”

Proof is in the pudding

Scottsdale Unified School District Governing Board member Pam Kirby, who was provided the data shared with the Scottsdale Independent, says the data is speculative — and believes SUSD enrollment is declining rather than remaining steady.

Pam Kirby

Pam Kirby

“Comparing October numbers — 40 day — to 100-day enrollment numbers is apples to oranges as we have historically seen shifts between October and the 100-day,” she said. “A more meaningful comparison is October 2015 to October 2014. Using Arizona Department of Education October 2014 enrollment figures, SUSD enrollment is down 229. This decline is consistent with annual enrollment declines since 2008.”

Ms. Kirby claims the data shows SUSD enrollment has been on the decline since 2008 and this school year is no different.

“Annually, since 2008, our enrollment has steadily declined between 173 and 411 students — this year is no different,” she said.

“Surprisingly, even though faced with the same state funding and charter challenges, enrollment of some of our neighboring public school districts increased last year. In fact, looking at increases of neighboring charters and neighboring public school districts, the mix of increases was split evenly. I do believe some students return to SUSD, but it’s a revolving door and we continue to lose more than are returning.”

Governing Board President Bonnie Sneed has a different perspective.

Bonnie Sneed

Bonnie Sneed

“I am pleased to see the return of many of our SUSD families, and a stabilization of enrollment across the district,” she said in an Oct. 21 written response to e-mailed questions.

“This is quite a feat, (especially) in the current political climate that is actively undermining public school systems all across the nation. The reinstatement of full-day Wednesdays and elementary arts offerings in SUSD have contributed to the return of many elementary students. I think that the local community’s support of the 2014 override contributed to a more stable financial environment, generated positive energy, and stemmed some of the same outward flow that is plaguing and threatening the existence of thousands of public districts across the entire country.”

Ms. Sneed says she is acutely aware students are coming back to Scottsdale Schools.

“I know some families have decided to come back, realizing that the day-to-day reality of charters did not match the marketing,” she pointed out.

“They say that they quickly tired of the neverending requests for big donations. They realized that teachers were not necessarily certified or highly qualified in their content area. They realized that some essential student supports did not exist. They realized that charters do not operate as openly as district schools. Most importantly, they realized that their child may be missing out on important socialization which will ultimately help them adjust more easily during their high school experiences.”

Same board, different concerns

Ms. Kirby contends a steady decline in enrollment is a symptom of the real problem — a lack of understanding by district leadership.

“I am very concerned about the steady annual decline we have suffered for the past eight years resulting in almost a 10 percent loss,” she said.

“However, my greatest concern is that after all of these years of receiving feedback from our families about why they are leaving, we still have no plan to invest in classroom innovation, personalized learning, programs, quality teachers and quality principals. Some argue that we haven’t had the money to invest in these areas. We could debate that. Regardless, we should still have a plan and make it a priority to execute against that plan where and when we can.”

Ms. Sneed says her concerns revolve around dollars and cents rather than cyclical dips in enrollment.

“The numbers that concern me most are the $9.5 million the Legislature swept from our SUSD building repair and textbook/curriculum fund last year in order to balance the state budget,” she pointed out.

“That 85 percent reduction in that single budget line item makes any loss of income from enrollment pale in comparison. It forces us to pay for repairs to some of our 50-year-old buildings and updates to textbooks from the maintenance and operations ‘classroom fund.’”

But with more funds or not, Ms. Sneed says the board must not waiver in its commitment to providing quality education in Scottsdale.

“We must focus our efforts on offering the very best service possible to every single student who chooses to walk in our doors,” she said. “If we have some of the best performing schools in the state and country, then parents and students who are focused on academic, social, and extra-curricular opportunities will choose our schools. If they are leaving for other reasons, they rarely articulate those.”

Ms. Kirby contends enrollment goals ought to be a benchmark of success for the district and its top officials.

“I strongly believe annual enrollment goals should be part of the superintendent’s performance objectives. These goals would need to flex year to year to reflect current conditions,” she said.

“While I was successful in bringing this discussion to the 2014 governing board, the majority of that board disagreed that enrollment should be part of the superintendent’s performance goals. Therefore, there are currently no goals set for enrollment.”

Not seeing significant losses is a win nowadays for the any public school district, Ms. Sneed says.

“I am thrilled that we are able to stabilize in such a volatile political and financial environment. One must look at industry standards in order to have a perspective on all of the trends,” she said.

“Many larger districts around the country would be thrilled to experience even slight enrollment growth. Taking the recession into account is also important, as many people were forced out of their homes, and Arizona has not seen the higher rate of recovery that other states have enjoyed.”

Ms. Kirby thinks it’s important for the district to focus on and analyze all segments of the district.

“Collectively, high schools are slightly up; however, despite having recently rebuilt all of our middle schools, they account for the majority of our losses,” she explained.

“Finally, despite a massive override investment of millions of dollars in our elementary schools, our elementary schools are neutral. Interestingly, within that figure, there are a handful of elementary schools that are significantly up, offset by a handful that are significantly down. What we don’t know is if there was simply a shift of our own students from SUSD elementary schools to other SUSD elementary schools or if there were true gains and losses from outside the district.”

Northeast Valley Managing Editor Terrance Thornton can be contacted at tthornton@newszap.com

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