Scottsdale Schools candidates discuss student enrollment effects

Two open seats on the Scottsdale Unified School District Governing Board are up for election on Tuesday, Nov. 6.

Patty Beckman and Jann-Michael Greenburg are the official candidates vying for the school board, and former SUSD Governing Board member Christine Schild announced her candidacy as an official write-in candidate.

Ms. Beckman, a mother of twin girls at Mohave Middle School, has lived in Paradise Valley since 2002 and says her family has lived in the Phoenix and Scottsdale areas since the 1950s. She has a background in finance with a degree from Arizona State University.

Mr. Greenburg is a 2012 Arcadia High School graduate, rising to be fifth in his class, he says. Following graduation he went to law school at the University of Edinburgh, where he graduated with a first class honors degree in law in 2016.

Ms. Schild, a Scottsdale resident since 1993, has been an attorney for 35 years, she practiced until 1989 before retiring to raise her children.

She was elected to the Scottsdale school board in 2002, and served from 2003-07. In 2007, Ms. Schild opened a law practice but retired in 2014, she says.

The Independent is doing a question-and-answer series with the three candidates leading up to election day. Read below for the candidates’ third round of questions:

Christine Schild

Christine Schild

•SUSD officials have announced that they will be looking at enrollment numbers in October, and that consolidation options may be a part of that discussion. Furthermore, the Navajo Elementary School closure again brought up consolidation discussions for schools with fewer students. Would you support consolidation of schools?

Consolidation of schools should be considered only as a last resort. Neighborhood public schools are the lifeblood of a community. Once a school is closed and the property sold, the opportunity for young families to move into the area is lost. I’ve had numerous conversations with parents district-wide who want a vibrant public school in their neighborhood. Although it is unlikely the district will experience growth in its northern half soon, the schools are separated by greater distances making consolidation more difficult. The district should focus on improving academic rigor and offering coursework that attracts students to our northern schools. South Scottsdale is being revitalized and young families are moving back in. The district has to ensure it retains enough capacity for the expected growth in its southern half as well as offering programs these young parents want.

•In years past, enrollment at SUSD schools has been declining. Why do you believe this is?

Scottsdale’s enrollment has been slowly declining over the past 10 years although there were upticks along the way. One reason is the natural aging of the community. When I moved here in 1993, there were lots of young families with children. The children have graduated from high school, but the parents still live in their same home. As a result, growth in the northern half of the district is expected to remain stagnant. The southern half of the district is beginning to turn over as grandparents and investors sell their more affordable homes to young families who want to live in Scottsdale. The other reason is the increased number of charter schools. This change has impacted enrollment in two ways, particularly in the northern half of the District: (1) parents are choosing charter schools instead of neighborhood public schools; and (2) these parents are buying homes near the charter schools, making it more difficult for others to move into the neighborhood school’s attendance area.

•What do you believe to be the biggest issue SUSD has when it comes to retaining students and school choice?

When I moved to Scottsdale 25 years ago, parents had a choice between the neighborhood public school or a private (usually religious) school. The landscape has changed dramatically since charter schools began operating successfully in Scottsdale, increasing competition for enrollment within the district’s borders. This competition is healthy because it drives improvements in academic achievement. However, having a neighborhood public school option for our children is imperative. Charter schools do not meet the needs of every child. The district should focus on providing our children with a well-rounded education and work to ensure 100 percent of its students receive a diploma or GED certificate. That way, parents who want a solid K-12 education for their child without the stress of an accelerated curriculum have an attractive alternative to charter or private schools.

Patty Beckman

Patty Beckman

•SUSD officials have announced that they will be looking at enrollment numbers in October, and that consolidation options may be a part of that discussion. Furthermore, the Navajo Elementary School closure again brought up consolidation discussions for schools with fewer students. Would you support consolidation of schools?

On the surface some would say closing or consolidating schools with low enrollment is the fiscally responsible thing to do. I would argue that is not necessarily the case. Neighborhood schools provide benefits to the community that cannot be measured. They often act as a gathering place, they are where some children get their only real meal, and they provide a safe environment for play and sports practice.

I believe in using data. You must really look at the actual savings, to see if there truly is a substantial one, before you take a drastic measure that will upset an entire community and cause a potential visual blight on a neighborhood. With consolidation, the children will be moved to another public school, and, if they choose to stay in the district, the teachers and staff will be relocated accordingly, so there is no real savings there. Also, if the property doesn’t sell, which requires a vote by taxpayers, there is an ongoing expense of maintenance, insurance etc.

Ultimately a comprehensive study must be done, SUSD does not have a current one, whereby you look at all data regarding demographics, and reasons for enrollment decline. There would be nothing more fiscally irresponsible than to close a school, sell a valuable asset and then witness a renaissance, such as the one south Scottsdale is experiencing. Taxpayers, correctly would be incensed if we fail to act in a measured, responsible manner.

While I cannot say consolidation should never happen, a district needs to have all the data and analysis to back up such a drastic measure. Consolidation should only be considered as a last resort and only if it can be proven to benefit students and our respective communities.

•In years past, enrollment at SUSD schools has been declining. Why do you believe this is?

We have many factors that have contributed to an enrollment decline in SUSD. Some of which are; charter schools opening within the boundaries of Scottsdale unified, a perceived lack of academic rigor, and most importantly, an almost non-existent marketing of the programs available in SUSD. I believe that SUSD has some extraordinary programs available to students. I am also confident that no entity can compete with the education that is provided to our students. I believe many families that move their children to schools outside of SUSD would potentially stay if they were aware of the opportunities available.

Open enrollment affords families the right to not only attend their neighborhood public school, but to attend any public school. If our district hopes to grow enrollment it needs to continue to be at the educational forefront with classes in STEM, the arts, vocational training, as well as, many other desired programs and we need to make marketing these programs a priority. If a parent considers leaving SUSD, they should make the decision being fully informed about all the programs they leave behind.

•What do you believe to be the biggest issue SUSD has when it comes to retaining students and school choice?

My family has chosen public education and Scottsdale Unified School District. I have been a parent in the district for almost a decade. I continue to choose SUSD for my children because not only do I want them to be challenged academically, but I also want them to have a well-rounded, diversified education. I want them to have the option of joining student government, playing sports, being in a musical, going to prom, and, of course, learning. The last couple of years have been concerning to me because one constant I could rely on with my choice of SUSD, my children getting highly skilled and experienced teachers, is becoming less and less certain. Our teachers have been leaving and with them, parents have been leaving, as well. I believe a respected and valued teacher has the ability to perform miracles in the classroom.

The biggest issue SUSD faces is retaining and attracting a qualified workforce. Our classified staff needs competitive pay and acknowledgment for the work they do each day. We can offer all of the innovative programs in the world but without the talent to teach it, we have nothing.

Jann-Michael Greenburg

Jann-Michael Greenburg

•SUSD officials have announced that they will be looking at enrollment numbers in October, and that consolidation options may be a part of that discussion. Furthermore, the Navajo Elementary School closure again brought up consolidation discussions for schools with fewer students. Would you support consolidation of schools?

Since starting my campaign, I have made it very clear that I am not in support of further school consolidations. SUSD cannot cut its way to growth, and while I am certainly not in favor of doing things that are fiscally irresponsible, and consolidation can be a great strategy for a business, SUSD is not a business (though, its management and internal controls – e.g., procurement and human resources – should be run like one).

I have written extensively about the problems with consolidations on my website (the article published Sept. 3, 2018 can be found at jmg4susd.com/blog. Right now, SUSD’s consolidation is being discussed in a vacuum: there is no collectively agreed upon vision or goal it is supposed to help accomplish. It is a stand-alone act, which is not supported by other considerations: only that funding is tight.

However, consolidating can have some or all of the following drawbacks for SUSD:

  1. it signals financial difficulties and instability, which is hardly appealing to parents and children looking at schools to attend;
  2. it is endless, as an argument can always be made to consolidate in the name of “efficiency”;
  3. it will not (and has not) reversed SUSD’s student enrollment decline and might even increase it as disenfranchised students choose to enroll in non-SUSD schools over attending different SUSD schools;
  4. it is disruptive to students and their learning;
  5. it can lead to the separation of friends and close relationships as students are sent to different schools;
  6. it can lead to increased travel times for students and undermine neighborhood schools and values;
  7. it can lead to increased class sizes; and
  8. it the true extent of any financial savings are unsubstantiated, since the only certain cost savings are found in administration (the District must maintain its properties, the students moved to new schools will require additional teachers, etc.).

This list is by no means definitive, but it does place the issue of “cost savings” in the true context of effects caused by consolidation and, one would hope, make anyone second guess a consolidation prior to initiating such plans.

•In years past, enrollment at SUSD schools has been declining. Why do you believe this is? What do you believe to be the biggest issue SUSD has when it comes to retaining students and school choice?

There are numerous reasons why SUSD’s student enrollment has declined over the past decade, and it is not because we do not have excellent teachers and bright students, because we certainly do.

In the short term, former SUSD parents at charter and private schools have made it very clear to me that they left SUSD due to the turmoil, corruption, and chronic mismanagement of the district. While some of the current members of the Governing Board may wish to “embrace controversy” rather than lament it, it is clear that our students, teachers, parents, and SUSD community do not.

In the long-term, there are many factors which have contributed to this unfortunate decline, not all of which can be mentioned here.

For one thing, SUSD lacks a clear vision for its future and the concrete goals which serve as benchmarks for measuring our progress in achieving that vision. Without a coherent vision and plan, our Governing Board and Administration deal with matters on a one-off basis, like the poorly conceived, horrifically implemented, and unrewarding “Coronado Success Initiative.”

Rather than continually working on bettering our District and moving towards a definitive vision by taking deliberative steps towards our goals, our District has taken a haphazard approach with very mixed results that is unappealing to SUSD stakeholders.

Additionally, SUSD has amazing academic and extra-curricular programs at its schools that simply are not marketed to our community as they should be. It is also the case that there are many more programs and learning opportunities SUSD ought to offer and work with community members to develop which has not been done.

By focusing solely on “academic excellence” and “university applications and attendance,” SUSD has done a disservice to its diverse community which often wishes to participate in other learning opportunities. Such opportunities, like an expansion of performing arts, fine arts, vocational programs, summer internship programs, classes on, law, business, and the like would certainly make SUSD stand out and attract families.

A major issue, and one that SUSD can do little about directly, is the State of Arizona’s failure to properly fund and maintain its public education. Despite this fact, our schools can be run efficiently, and we can retain excellent educators. There are many families who are now realizing that our public schools do operate at a severe disadvantage.

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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