In a nearly five-hour meeting on Oct. 4, the Scottsdale Unified School District Governing Board received two reports on district demographic trends and its current bond situation that could have a profound effect on its future of schools.
As the district determines how to allocate resources going forward, it commissioned a demographic and enrollment trends study by Applied Economics.
The company’s report showed a district-wide decline in enrollment of approximately 4,800 students since the 2001/2002 school year.
Rick Brammer of Applied Economics said that much of that decline is the result of increased competition from charter schools. SUSD lost about 4,000 students since 2010, a time period in which charters in the district added 5,200 students.
Brammer noted that the charter school competition is having its largest affect on schools in the south. Schools in the north are experiencing increasing competition from private schools, and SUSD is the only district in the Valley seeing this trend.
The pull from charter schools disproportionately affects elementary and middle schools – a primary target for charter school operators. Charters are less competitive at the high school level because services and extracurricular activities public schools offer, including sports and band, are hard to sustain.
Brammer said “the other thing we know is the charter school operators are doing this for a profit, and it turns out it’s a lot more expensive to educate high schoolers than it is to educate younger students, and they’re also more difficult to educate.”
High school students were the third largest enrollment group in the district in 2001 behind grades 3-5 and grades 6-8, according to average enrollment per grade numbers. However, high school students are now the largest group, as those other groups have declined steadily over the last 17 years while high school enrollment has stayed relatively consistent.
Projections from Applied Economics show five elementary schools dropping below 400 students by 2028-2029 – Navajo, Anasazi, Yavapai, Echo Canyon and Mountain Side. Another two, Desert Mountain and Laguna, are expected to drop below 450 students.
That could pose a problem.
“When you get down to a school with 275 students, if you are offering a full program, it is costing you an awful lot of money to do that,” Brammer said.
The decline in enrollment is not affecting all of the district’s schools equally.
Enrollment in both the Arcadia and Chaparral learning communities has remained relatively stable since 2013-14. Saguaro learning community has also remained stable except for a large dip in enrollment in 2014-15 that affected the entire district.
Brammer said the district is really being hurt by increased competition in the north in the Desert Mountain learning community and in the south in the Coronado learning community. Both communities saw dips in enrollment that exceeded projections.
Still, Brammer said there has been stabilization in southern Scottsdale, specifically in Saguaro and Coronado – though he noted the dips in enrollment have been steeper in Coronado.
“We know there are turnover in these neighborhoods and there are families moving back into southern Scottsdale,” Brammer said.
In addition to charter schools, schools in SUSD are increasing competition from each other. For instance, nearly 300 students that live in Coronado High School’s boundaries attend Saguaro High School.
That amounts to 28 percent of the school-aged kids living in Coronado’s boundaries.
Overall, the capture rate – that is the rate of school-aged kids living in the district that actually attend district schools – is about 60 percent. That number is projected to go down to 54.5 percent by 2029.
Some schools are capturing students in their area better than others. For instance, both Cocopah Middle School and Cherokee Elementary both have capture rates over 90 percent.
However, others are faring much worse.
Navajo and Redfield Elementary Schools have capture rates in the 30 percent range.
Skip Brown, a consultant hired by the district, gave a presentation on the status of the district’s current bond projects and which schools are potential candidates for rebuilds or renovations using bond money in the near future.
Brown said the rebuilds at Hopi Elementary School and Pima Traditional School are on track and nearing completion. The district should expect the return of some contingency funds allocated to those projects.
The renovations at Cheyenne Traditional School are complete.
The district also had significant track and field improvements at Chaparral, Saguaro, and Coronado high schools that are complete. A similar project at Arcadia High School is nearing completion.
Another planned project to create a district central kitchen has been shelved.
The district has $43.7 million in bond funds remaining before the next sale with about $35.4 million allocated towards campus rebuilds.
Brown said that the remaining rebuild funds are not enough to fund two complete campus rebuilds. He said the district could choose instead to renovate two campuses, utilizing the existing shell of a building while replacing other components.
He also said the district could choose to completely rebuild one campus and renovate another, potentially in phases as remaining funds allow.
Brown identified Cherokee Elementary as a strong candidate to be rebuilt because enrollment trends show it has had the largest net addition of K-6 students and may need additional space to accommodate future growth.
He said Hohokam could be a good choice for a phased renovation.
It is up to the board to determine which campuses are rebuilt or renovated.
Currently, the board on Oct. 16 will discuss the issue and potentially determine which campuses to rebuild or renovate.
However, board President Barbara Perleberg indicated an additional meeting may be needed before a decision can be made so that it and staff can study the data.