To grow or to consolidate? SUSD officials give smallest schools 2 years to improve enrollment

The Scottsdale Unified School District Governing Board, Acting Superintendent Dr. John Kriekard and Executive Admin Coordinator to Superintendent & Gov. Board Sondra Como. (photo by SUSD)

In what appears to be a last-ditch effort to not close any schools, the Scottsdale Unified School District Governing Board gave a proverbial head nod to its superintendent, allowing four elementary schools a two-year time frame to increase enrollment.

On Monday, Nov. 5, Acting Superintendent Dr. John Kriekard presented to the Governing Board an idea that he says worked in a neighboring district: giving the school community a chance to improve itself before deciding to shut the doors for good.

Governing Board members say this is just about the only thing not attempted in the past 10 years to bolster school enrollment, because solutions were often designed and executed by district administration and elected officials.

Classroom Band-Aids in the past have included trying to get any and all students, regardless of their location, or simply trying to increase communication and marketing. But officials now say they’ve kicked the can down the road long enough and it’s time to go and get their local students.

In a time where neighborhood schools are duking it out with charter and private schools for the business of each individual student, SUSD has four campuses with too few students, officials there say.

During a special meeting held at Coronado High School, Dr. Kriekard gave top district officials an overview of his idea, coined “To Grow or To Consolidate? A Plan for Working with Schools,” which ultimately allows the four schools to create a niche and attempt to draw students.

School officials say Anasazi, Navajo, Echo Canyon and Yavapai elementary schools are all in danger of having too few students to operate.

However, there are 12 district schools — out of 29 — with fewer than 500 students on this year’s 40-day mark. They are:

  • Anasazi: 378
  • Desert Canyon: 463
  • Echo Canyon: 390
  • Hohokom: 432
  • Kiva: 477
  • Laguna: 395
  • Navajo: 344
  • Pima: 433
  • Pueblo: 479
  • Redfield: 475
  • Sequoya: 490
  • Yavapai: 262

If by November 2020 situations haven’t improved, it will be time for a tough discussion, Dr. Kriekard outlined.

In addition, Governing Board Vice President Kim Hartmann presented research conducted by herself through public records requests alleging there are more than 10,000 students in the SUSD boundaries who are choosing to go elsewhere.

“What I did was took the Applied Economics information — what I thought was interesting as basically it says what it told us five years ago,” Ms. Hartmann explained of her research, noting she can’t recall discussing a growth strategy in her four years on the board.

Kim Hartmann

“Capture rate really was what we captured within school boundaries versus outside of school boundaries; as opposed to students captured in neighborhoods and our own schools.”

Ms. Hartmann believes SUSD can grow, as having the correct information can empower the community and the district. Her information outlined that there is roughly 20,581 students in a K-5 or K-8 school district who live in Scottsdale boundaries.

“Compared to the 10,168 that are attending,” she said. “That means the difference between those two is 10,400 students that we don’t capture. They go to private schools, they go to charter schools, they go somewhere but they don’t go to an SUSD school.”

Ms. Hartmann noted that each student represents about $5,000 in Average Daily Membership — or ADM — monies from the legislature.

“Think about it, if we attract 10 students, that’s $50,000 ADM,” she said. “It really would make a lot of sense to go after a few more students.”

A man with a plan

Dr. Kriekard’s proposal is one borrowed from a neighboring school district — which he says worked.

“I’d like to propose a process that gives schools a fair warning,” Dr. Kriekard said of his plan.

Dr. John Kriekard

“And, that also gives them a chance to improve their situation, so that they meet the criteria that we believe is important for efficient schools as well as effective schools.”

Of the four schools deemed “code red” during the conversation, Echo Canyon and Navajo elementary schools are predicted to lose students in the next 10 years, Dr. Kriekard says.

The plan presented includes asking the four schools to find a program they believe meets the needs of their community and attracts students.

Anasazi has selected a “primary years” program, which will be set up to feed into the International Baccalaureate programs at Mountainside Middle School and Desert Mountain High School. Navajo Elementary School has a STEAM — Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math — program established on its campus already; while Echo Canyon and Yavapai’s programs are to-be-determined.

Additionally, Dr. Kriekard has laid out a “performance contract,” which includes two major areas:

  • Maintain or increase performance as measured by the state accountability system, such as AzMERIT testing and letter grade; and
  • Increase enrollment by 10 percent in the first year, and reach a minimum of 400 students, excluding pre-kindergarten and special program enrollment.

“We are suggesting that in the first year, as they are getting started, we can’t expect miracles, but we would like to see a trend,” Dr. Kriekard said.

“My recommendation is, my request is, that the board take action to agree that this two-year plan for support with the schools is the way you’d like to go and we pursue this process immediately.”

The Governing Board ultimately did agree to go with Dr. Kriekard’s plan, but a vote on the plan has been postponed until Tuesday, Nov. 13, when the community can provide input.

The Scottsdale Unified School District Governing Board room is at Coronado High School, 7501 E. Virginia Ave., Scottsdale. (file photo)

A reluctant approval

The Governing Board’s support for the plan wasn’t without hesitation.

Governing Board member Sandy Kravetz passionately questioned, why will this plan be any different than past superintendents’ plans that lacked results?

Sandy Kravetz

“I feel like we’ve had some sort of variation of this discussion over the years,” she explained, saying she found a presentation from November 2014 outlining how to recruit students.

“We talked about marketing of our schools, etc. etc. It’s all very important. I guess I want to know what’s going to be different in two years from now? Will we be sitting here having the same conversation? That concerns me.”

Ms. Kravetz says there are parents who tour their schools and choose not to enroll, or they pull their student out of SUSD to go elsewhere.

“I’m a little frustrated because Yavapai is sitting at 262,” she said. “We’re talking about increasing enrollment by 10 percent — so that’s another 26 (students); another 10 percent after that, we still won’t be at 400. So where is this influx coming from?

“I get frustrated because I want to know — I want to attract more people that aren’t coming to our schools, that aren’t coming to our district. What is going to change to do that? I don’t know that the answer is just marketing, marketing, marketing if we don’t change what we’re doing.”

Dr. Kriekard took a stab to try and quell Ms. Kravetz’s concerns.

“It’s always a good question: what is going to make a difference?” he said.

“In most cases in the past, the board and cabinet come together on a recommendation to close a school, and they go through all of the issues with a community that’s disenchanted and didn’t know this was coming down the pike. They weren’t given a chance to improve their product. There’s no reason not to tell you yes this particular model comes from a neighboring district where it was successful.”

State law requires only a minimum of 20 days notice before closing a school, Dr. Kriekard says.

The longtime educator says a few years ago, this neighboring district named four schools in trouble — two schools did nothing, one school maintained, and the fourth school had to have more classrooms built onto its campus after implementing a new, successful program.

Dr. Kriekard believes including the community will make a difference, he says.

“Marketing strategy at the district level is fine, but we all know talk in the grocery lines is most important,” he said.

Governing Board member Pam Kirby says she also has questions about what Dr. Kriekard has proposed, but is willing to give the new process a try.

“This conversation started about closing schools, I believe, approximately 2008 — 10 years ago,” she said.

“I think we’ll be going on to our seventh or eighth board next year having this conversation. In that time frame, boards have tried to solve that problem with ‘we need more marketing, we need more administration, we need more rigor.’ I believe the mistake we’ve made is we never identified the schools that need to be addressed, very publicly, and turned around to the superintendent and say ‘you go fix it.’ We tried to fix it up here.”

Ms. Kirby said while she’s a little exasperated, she is willing to give the plan a shot.

Allyson Beckham

Governing Board member Allyson Beckham said she feels a sense of urgency to this matter that she doesn’t necessarily see the administration having.

“What I have seen over the past 12 years is that we always have these great plans and then nothing happens with them,” Ms. Beckham said.

“I feel a sense of urgency that I don’t see by the administration, and so therefore I’d like to see that sense of urgency. In a sense, you go do the job, but you have to be able to communicate progress and what is happening, because if there’s no communication or any additional information, when you do come to request funds from the budget and I don’t have any information from this meeting until April when you’re asking for funds, I once again am going to get frustrated and say ‘it’s the same old thing, I can’t give you any funds.’ I just want to see the communication that is to the site, the site leaders, so you know progress is being made”

Dr. Kriekard noted after Ms. Beckham’s comments that he’s sorry SUSD had superintendents who didn’t follow through on their plans and goals.

“As I’ve said before, you should have hired me earlier,” he noted light heartedly.

Governing Board President Barbara Perleberg lauded Ms. Hartmann’s optimism, saying she probably would place herself on the caboose of the optimism train.

“I hear boardmember Kirby, and of course boardmember Kravetz, this is not a new conversation — it is over 10 years of different administration and different boardmembers trying to solve a problem that’s been in front of us for a very long time,” she said.

“It’s been so long honestly I’d lost all hope that we’d ever have an honest, real conversation about our enrollment decline, our excess capacity and the cost our students and classrooms pay for that realty. If we don’t talk about and answer the question of our sustainability and health in this district, I don’t know what the future looks like, and this Governing Board is supposed to drive this district to the future.”

Ms. Perleberg says the district didn’t get to this point over the past year, and she agrees that it’s time to place this issue in the laps of the community.

“As that list sinks in to all of our collective mindset, I’m going to have to challenge the fact that a 400 student bar, let’s be honest, that’s a pretty low bar,” she said, asking if 400 students is enough to create a sustainable campus.

Interim Chief Financial Officer Jeff Gadd says 400 students is at the lower end of the spectrum, “but it is within reason of how this state funds public schools.”

“I think the 400 threshold would give this district, and any other district for that matter, a reasonable position to be in financially,” Mr. Gadd said. “Below that threshold, I think there’s real issues concerning fixed cost. I think 400 is OK, I would not say the same thing under 400.”

Northeast Valley News Editor Melissa Rosequist can be e-mailed at mrosequist@newszap.com or can be followed on Twitter at twitter.com/mrosequist_.

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