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Tue, Aug. 20

Declining enrollment puts squeeze on Quad Cities school districts
Fewer students at area schools means loss of state funding

Wes Brownfield, executive director for the Arizona Rural Schools Association and a retired Chino Valley High School principal. (Courier file)

Wes Brownfield, executive director for the Arizona Rural Schools Association and a retired Chino Valley High School principal. (Courier file)

In area school districts, the impact of declining enrollment in 10 of the state’s 15 counties — a drop of 10,000 students over the past decade – is something school leaders and governing boards wrestle with every year.

The problem: How to ensure robust curriculum and course offerings, as well as extracurricular opportunities, when state dollars continue to dwindle.

Those funds are attached to enrollment, which has been in a steady decline over the past decade.

“The real challenge and frustration for rural schools is that they are the cultural and emotional heart of the community,” said Wes Brownfield, executive director for the Arizona Rural Schools Association and a retired Chino Valley High School principal. “It’s really important to have a healthy school. But it’s difficult to have a healthy school.”

In Arizona’s rural communities, the demographics do not favor public education, Brownfield said. He cited a national 2016-17 study that shows how rural communities are losing their middle class because high school graduates opt to attend college and build careers elsewhere.

Rural communities in Arizona tend to attract retirement folks seeking tax relief, and so there is often reluctance to raise local tax dollars to enhance education.

In recent years, all three area districts have seen taxpayers reject proposed bonds.

In 2015, after a defeat two years earlier, Prescott Unified was able to receive a $15 million bond and $6 million override.

Brownfield said his association is working closely with state lawmakers, as well as with Kathy Hoffman, the state Superintendent of Public Instruction, to counter the negative funding impacts for rural districts.

Hoffman’s administration is working on what she has described as the “Arizona Student Opportunity Collaborative” aimed at building a network of qualified teachers able to offer additional rigorous coursework to motivated students in rural districts, according to a recent Associated Press story.

Expect More Arizona is another statewide advocacy group urging lawmakers to be aware and make changes needed so that all of this state’s students are able to compete with their national peers.

“The core of our mission is that every child in Arizona should have the opportunity to be successful, and should have access to high quality education,” said the agency’s Community Engagement Manager Jennifer Hernandez.

Hernandez noted that 85 percent of this state’s student population attends traditional public schools.

As a one-time Arizona student, Hernandez said she enjoyed a public school education that offered her a wide variety of academic and extracurricular opportunities. Unfortunately, she said, when funds are cut from rural districts some of those extras simply aren’t affordable, she said.

When Brownfield was principal at Chino Valley High, he said the track team couldn’t host meets because the school track was deemed unsafe. He said they had school buses so old that some of his students’ grandparents had traveled to school on those same buses.

The good news for rural Arizona: Many devoted faculty and staff remain who are doing everything in their power to deliver their students a higher caliber education, Brownfield said.

The state Department of Education shows strong graduation rates in Chino Valley, Humboldt and Prescott. The recorded rates from 2017 documentation show Humboldt with a 90 percent graduation rate, Chino Valley with just under that and Prescott at about 83 percent.

Prescott Unified School District Superintendent Joe Howard didn’t mince words when recently reflecting on the importance of reversing that trend.

Rather than see Prescott continually touted as one of the top retirement destinations in the country, Howard said he would like the city to be featured in family magazines as an ideal place to raise children. He, too, suggested it is high time for the state to rethink its funding formulas so children in the state’s more rural districts do not suffer academically.

The state funding formula is calculated per student — last year Prescott received about $5,000 per student — and with fewer students comes fewer dollars.

Prescott’s proposed 2019-20 budget is anticipating flat growth after losing more than 100 student in the current fiscal year, a factor that this year cost the district $800,000.

Chino Valley Unified School District Superintendent John Scholl said the decline this year required trimming five staff positions, four of them vacancies.

Like in other area and rural towns, Scholl said part of the dilemma is the lack of affordable housing options, both for families and staff.

To that end, Scholl said the district is starting to talk about the possibility of constructing affordable teacher housing on existing district property. Similar discussions have been held in other rural districts. The town, too, is open to offering a stronger blend of housing that will attract families with children, he said.

“We have some amazing staff that are doing some amazing things,” Scholl said. “And we have received information that the community is seeing positive changes in the Chino Valley schools, and those are connected with quality staff. And that’s exciting. Kids are getting a first-rate, quality education in Chino Valley and people recognize it.”

If enrollments, though, continue to slide, and state funding formulas aren’t properly adjusted, Scholl admits the sustainability of those efforts “is questionable.”

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