GPS losing teachers, students as charters thrive

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By Wayne Schutsky, GSN Managing Editor

Gilbert Public Schools has seen a steady decline in enrollment over the past several years, triggering a reduction in teaching positions and posing long-term negative financial implications for the district.

Although it serves one of the nation’s fastest growing municipalities, GPS expects enrollment to decline by 400 students in the upcoming school year.

Due to those losses, the district cut 20 teaching positions in its new budget, Assistant Superintendent Jeff Gadd said during a recent budget presentation to the school board.

Since 2010, the district’s average daily membership has dropped from approximately 36,753 to 32,972 for the upcoming school year.

Higley Unified School District has not experienced the same trend. The district is expecting enrollment to increase in the next school year and has added 36 teachers, with eight open positions left to fill, HUSD CFO Gary Holland said.

Neither Mesa Public Schools – the state’s largest public-school system – nor Chandler Unified  reported a reduced number of teachers for 2018-19.

Decreasing attendance at Gilbert Public Schools could have long-term consequences. Gadd said the decrease in attendance effectively negates the 1.8 percent inflationary increase the district receives in per-student funding.

Gadd also said the district would lose $500 per student between now and 2023 as the state restores district additional assistance funding.

That decrease in funding harms school districts because fixed costs like building maintenance and air conditioning do not measurably decrease.

“They are losing income and they have fixed costs,” said Jim Hall, a former educator who spent 23 years as a principal before founding the Arizonans for Charter School Accountability nonprofit.

What is causing the downward trend in GPS? It depends on whom you ask.

Gadd said one factor is a maturing population in the downtown area that outpaces growth in the district’s outlying areas.

He also said the popularity of charter schools in Gilbert likely has had an effect on the district’s declining enrollment.

Hall said expansion in the East Valley by large charter schools has pulled students away from Gilbert Public Schools.

Great Hearts Academies, BASIS Charter Schools, Benjamin Franklin Charter School, Legacy Traditional Schools, San Tan Charter School and American Leadership Academy account for approximately 8,200 students enrolled in 14 campuses serving Gilbert and surrounding communities.

“The bottom line is, since about 2012, we have added 6,000 charter kids (to these large charter schools), and overall there are 8,000 charter kids going to these schools that serve the Gilbert area,” Hall said.

During the same time period, GPS lost approximately 3,000 students.

“When you look at it that way, Gilbert (Public School District) is doing OK,” he said. “They are getting this tremendous pull from all of these corporate charters and they still only decreased slightly in (enrollment).”

Eileen Sigmund, president of Arizona Charter Schools Association, said charters may have played a role in the decreasing enrollment at GPS. However, she does not believe they are the primary factor.

She pointed to a Center for Student Achievement Study from 2016 that showed the districts with the largest net gain of charter schools within their geographic boundaries from 2006 to 2015.

Gilbert Public School District did not make the top 10 on that list.

Rather, Sigmund believes Arizona’s school choice laws, which allow students to apply for admission to any public school even if they do not live in the district, has had a greater impact.

“In Gilbert, there are robust public charters and robust open enrollment,” Sigmund said.

Still, there is no denying that charter schools are major players in public education in the East Valley.

A presentation made by Sigmund to the Arizona State Board of Charter Schools earlier this year shows that Legislative Districts 12 and 17 – which collectively include Gilbert, Chandler, Queen Creek and small parts of Mesa – had some of the highest charter school enrollment numbers of any legislative district in the state in the 2016-17 school year.

LD 12 ranked first in the state with over 16,000 charter students, which accounted for 25 percent of students in the district.

LD 17 ranked third with nearly 12,000 charter students, which accounted for 24 percent of students in the district.

Proponents of charter schools often argue that they offer students in struggling districts the opportunity to access higher-quality education than their local district can provide.

However, the concentration of public charter schools in the East Valley – and Gilbert specifically – are predominantly located near well-performing public district schools.

According to Arizona State Board of Education letter grades, all schools in Gilbert Public School District except one have an A or B grade.

Hall said he is not outright opposed to charter schools as long as they serve an underserved population or provide unique services, such as Arizona School for the Arts or Arizona Autism Charter School.

He added that placing A- and B-rated charter schools near A- and B-rated public district schools results in the use of state public money to purchase and maintain redundant school facilities.

“We are replicating places we don’t need to,” he said.

Sigmund pushed back on that criticism, saying that the quality of education is not the only reason parents choose to send their children to charter schools.

She said many parents also seek out specific curriculums, civic-minded instruction and STEM-heavy curriculums provided by charter schools

She pointed to the use of the Socratic Method at Great Hearts Academies as an example.

“If the family demand did not exist, charter schools would not be able to open their doors and keep their doors open,” Sigmund said.

The districts and charters in Gilbert first butted heads over this issue in 2016, when American Leadership Academy purchased then unincorporated county land at Higley Road and Loop 202 for its new campus. The land is within the Higley Unified School District and was coveted by the district.

The Gilbert Town Council had previously discouraged developing the land for a school, saying it viewed the lot as prime real estate for business development.

At a Town Council meeting concerning the annexation of that land – which the council approved – officials from both GPS and HUSD spoke about the detrimental effects unbridled charter growth could have on their districts.

Then-GPS Superintendent Christina Kishimoto said enrollment in the district was dropping despite an increase in school-age students in Gilbert.

She said charter school growth had cost the district $10 million in state revenue and caused the consolidation of two schools, according to an East Valley Tribune article from January 2017.

At the meeting, Higley Superintendent Mike Thomason suggested bringing together the area’s public and charter schools to discuss ways to promote “the fiscally responsible growth of the schools within our boundaries.”

He expressed concern that poor planning would lead to more abandoned public school facilities.

Those abandoned buildings could be the source of further conflict between charter schools and districts in the future following the passage of HB 2460 by the Legislature.

The legislation would make it easier for charter schools to purchase abandoned school district facilities.

The legislation, which has its roots in Tucson Unified School District’s refusal to sell a closed school to a charter five years ago, prohibits districts that are selling buildings from accepting an offer “that is less than an offer from a charter school or private school.”

-Howard Fischer of Capitol Media Services contributed to this report.