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Enrollment decline for Mesa Public Schools could lead to budget cuts

PHOENIX — Mesa Public Schools, Arizona’s largest school district, has seen enrollment drop by about 5% this school year, which could have implications for next year’s school budget.

“We’re down about 3,700 students right now,” Mesa Public Schools Assistant Superintendent Scott Thompson said. “A lot of that is in the primary grades — first grade and kindergarten.”

He said some parents may have decided to homeschool their children while others may have decided to postpone their children’s entrance into kindergarten.

Some parents may also have taken their children to other districts and charter schools that started offering in-person classes earlier. Mesa Public Schools transitioned to a five-day, in-person class schedule last week.

Because school funding is tied to enrollment, the district projects a $23 million cut to next year’s budget. That means it’s possible the district may have to lay off school staff.

“Our cost is primarily people,” Thompson said. “It’s teachers, it’s bus drivers, it’s food service workers. All of those folks that support the kids. So any budget cut at that level would be affecting people and people’s ability to be employed and get paid.”

Like other school districts in Arizona, Mesa Public Schools has received federal funding through the CARES Act to address costs associated with the pandemic.

“So we do have the funds to get through this year,” Thompson said. “It’s next year that we’re most worried about.”

Mesa Public Schools may not be alone in seeing a drop in enrollment this school year. Thompson said other school districts across the state are facing similar declines.

He said he hopes additional dollars that Gov. Doug Ducey will make available for schools through a grant program will help offset some of the funds lost from enrollment declines.

The Enrollment Stabilization Grant Program will offer schools $200 million in grants to help keep their budgets stable during the pandemic. The funds have not been allocated yet.

Thompson said Mesa Public Schools requested about $18 million from that grant program.

“I recognize it’s a limited pot that may have to be prorated when it’s sent out to schools, so we really don’t know what we’re going to receive yet from that,” he said.

Thompson said another option would be to get additional funding through the state legislature. He’s optimistic that can happen given that the state’s overall loss in revenue from businesses being shut down and other pandemic-related losses was less than initially expected.

“We’re going to need resources, and for us that’s people,” he said. “We’re going to need teachers, counselors, instructional aids – all of those staff members to help students that have been impacted by COVID be successful.”

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