By Terri Jo Neff
The Gilbert Public School District’s recent notice that 152 teachers, school counselors and nurses, and administrators will be without jobs for the 2021-2022 school year may have upset the staff, but issues with the district’s falling enrollment and worsening financial situation is nothing new.
In a letter sent last week to all staff, Superintendent Dr. Shane McCord noted “it is imperative that student needs remain at the center of our decision-making, and that we remain fiscally responsible to ensure the long-term success of our students, our employees, our schools, and our district as a whole.”
Earlier this month the Arizona Auditor General issued a District Spending Report which noted Gilbert Schools had a projected student enrollment of 33,360 at the beginning of the 2020-2021 school year across 39 schools in Chandler, Gilbert, and Mesa. That enrollment represented a six percent decrease from five years before, even though population within the district’s boundaries has grown.
But in December, the district’s governing board was informed that the 2020-2021 budget -based on 33,360 students- had to be revised for an actual enrollment of less than 29,000. In fact, the nearly 3,900 fewer students resulted in a revenue reduction of $26 million, Assistant Superintendent Bonnie Betz said at the time.
“Statewide, there’s been a 40,000-student loss across the state,” Betz said. “The pandemic has had a significant impact on enrollment statewide.”
Some former Gilbert Schools students went to other districts or charter schools between July 2020 and December 2020, but even the larger Mesa Public Schools announced 3,500 fewer enrolled students during that same period. And the Arizona Department of Education recently announced that statewide enrollment for preschoolers and kindergarteners dropped off more than 40 percent over the last year.
Such decreases are expected to continue, contrary to hopeful claims by some within Gilbert Schools who believe enrollment will recover in the upcoming school year through an increase in primary grade students.
“While some parents of kindergarten and first grade students delayed the enrollment of their children this year in order to spare them the uncertainty created by the pandemic, the Gilbert district’s last minute decision-making has created an atmosphere of distrust that sent parents looking elsewhere,” one parent told AZ Free News.
It appears a majority of those students went into homeschool programs, which became popular -and in many instances necessary- for parents in response to districts kept changing their educational offerings during the pandemic.
Reaction from some teachers and legislators to McCord’s decision has pointed to the fact that the Gilbert Schools could have decreased class sizes instead of laying off teachers, even though the Arizona Auditor General report shows the district’s student to teacher ratio currently stands at 17.5 to 1, below the state average.
Voters in the Gilbert District approved a $100 million bond in 2019 to help build two new schools. There was also a 15 percent property tax override approved to help reduce class size and attract / retain teachers.
That doesn’t count the $2.3 million in federal funds passed along by the state to Gilbert Schools under the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) Fund covered by the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. Or the $9.7 million of ESSER II funds awarded to the district under the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations (CRRSA) Act in late 2020.
But with fewer enrolled students the district is not getting as much of that money as expected, which has been further exasperated by state education officials who decided to fund distance learners at a lower rate than in-person students.
If enrollment numbers rebound for the next school year then those who were not offered positions will be able to reapply.
“Gilbert Public Schools, along with many other school districts, faces a reduced number of students going into the next school year following the global pandemic. Decisions like this are not easily made, and as a school district, we greatly value all of our employees and their contributions. We continue to make every effort to increase enrollment for next year and it is our hope that many students lost during this pandemic will return to our schools over the next year.” – Gilbert Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Shane McCord