With 3,500 fewer students, MPS sees tough road ahead The Mesa Tribune | The Hometown Newspaper for the city of Mesa, AZ

With 3,500 fewer students, MPS sees tough road ahead

December 13th, 2020 Mesa Tribune Staff
With 3,500 fewer students, MPS sees tough road ahead

Tribune Executive Editor

Confronting a pandemic-fueled loss of at least 3,500 students and new expenses related to COVID-19, Mesa Public Schools officials are increasingly concerned about the district’s financial condition in the coming school year.

That concern came across loud and clear at the Governing Board’s final meeting of the calendar year last week as it addressed a $27.8-million hole in the $491.7-million budget it approved only six months ago for the current school year.

For now, it’s not as bad as those numbers suggest.

The shortfall was covered by a $22.8 million enrollment stabilization grant from the state and the remaining $6.4 million of $17 million in federal pandemic-relief funds the district received earlier in the year.

But Assistant Superintendent Scott Thompson warned that come spring, the new governing board may face tough choices unless the state and federal officials come to the rescue.

Pointing to the enrollment decline – and suggesting more students may be leaving the district in the coming months – Thompson said:

“I think it’s critical to understand that if this had happened in a typical year, we would have to do mid-year layoffs of staff – teachers, classified personnel, administrators. That would be happening right now.”

More alarming is the fact that no one knows what happened to those students – or any of the 40,000 across Arizona who have virtually disappeared.

“We’ve got kids all over the grade levels and all the grade spans who just aren’t in school and they’re not in charters and they’re not online because those numbers would still show up at the state level and the state would not be down,” Thompson said. “This is not the simple case of they’ve just gone somewhere else.”

Thompson also said that MPS is grappling with the fact that “we didn’t know in the spring what the fall was going to look like and we didn’t even know until we opened our doors what things were going to look like.”

He said MPS faces a “completely unprecedented loss of students in a completely under-projected manner.”

The state and federal funds have provided a fiscal lifeline, Thompson said, adding that while no one is talking about layoffs now, “those are going to be the conversations in the spring. We’ve got to try to narrow the gap between how many staff we have and how many students we have.”

Thompson said he has never seen the district’s operating budget in such flux.

“This is the most dynamic year in budgeting I’ve ever seen in over 23 years working in schools,” he said, “and ‘dynamic’ is not a good word for budgets.”

On the spending side, the district
has expenses it never had pre-COVID, such as protective equipment and sanitizing supplies.

But there are other expenses it has
incurred to reduce virus spread in classrooms.

“I think a great example is instead of having a set of crayons in a classroom, you have 30 sets of crayons so that not everybody is sharing the crayons,” Thompson noted.

Another expense has involved substitute teachers – who are more in demand than ever across Arizona because regular staff must stay home if they’re feeling sick.

The board last week voted unanimously to maintain a higher daily pay rate for substitutes – to as much as $197, depending on the length of a sub’s assignment and whether they have a substitute teaching certificate or a regular teaching certificate.

But the biggest driver in this year’s budget shortfall has been enrollment, particularly in grades K-8 and especially in kindergarten.

As is the case with most districts in Arizona, parents of kindergartners are believed to be keeping their children home out of concerns over COVID-19.

While districts are keeping their fingers crossed that those parents will send their kids either to kindergarten or first grade in the coming school year, no one has any certainty that will happen.

Gov. Doug Ducey had promised in June to make up for that shortfall through enrollment stabilization grants.

Even without students going elsewhere, Mesa and most other Arizona districts felt financial pain just by having students learn virtually because the rate of per-pupil state aid to districts is 5 percent lower for online students.

When the grants were made known two weeks ago, some districts saw only half of what they expected.

Mesa’s award was far closer to what it had expected.

Daniel Scarpinato, the governor’s chief of staff, conceded that schools are getting less than what they thought they would be receiving.

But he said, in effect, that the schools should be pleased they’re getting anything at all, as governors in other states have not agreed to any supplemental funding and in some cases have cut K-12 dollars in the wake of the pandemic.

Scarpinato said schools are getting less state aid because they just don’t have the same number of children they did before the virus. He said there are multiple reasons, suggesting some of these are the fault of districts themselves and the choices they make.

“One of them is students transferring to schools that are offering in-person learning,’’ Scarpinato said.

He also said there are “massive amounts of digital truancy’’ where students are not logging in and therefore not being counted for attendance.

But Kathy Hoffman, the state superintendent of public instruction, said she believes schools are being shortchanged.

Hoffman said schools made plans based on the promised dollars to fund everything from COVID-19 mitigation strategies to setting up distance learning programs.

“Based on the allocations provided to schools last week, the state has broken that promise,’’ Hoffman said.

Scarpinato said the $370 million in stabilization funding is more than what the districts would have received through the basic state aid formula.

The governor’s office also imposed a cap of $500 per student in stabilization funding – which Scarpinato said was based on guidance from the U.S. Treasury.

“It isn’t enough,” Thompson told the board, noting “$370 million just doesn’t cover it when you spread it out over all the districts.”

But Thompson added, “I think we should feel fortunate to have received almost $23 million through this process. It does not make us whole but it certainly is appreciated in a difficult time, so I don’t want to sound ungracious.”

“We appreciate that the governor set this aside,” he added.

Scarpinato said if schools are dissatisfied, there is an option: “The best place for this discussion is in the legislature.”

That’s exactly what Mesa school officials are doing, Thompson said.

“We still have to be prudent and expeditious about the expenses this year so that we can continue to carry forward money into (2021-22) because all of the safety nets that are being provided in 2021 are going to go away,” he said.

“We are talking with the Legislature and we are working on maybe some additional funds to schools to help continue to transition into our new reality of 3,500 less students in Mesa Public Schools, but we can’t be guaranteed that. And so right now, the only safety net we can control is continuing to try to carry forward and just spend where necessary but not in any other way.”

Howard Fischer of Capitol Media Services contributed to this report.

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